Tag: "quarantine"

Posted May 21, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

As the novel coronavirus has spread across the United States, so too have efforts to bring Internet access to digitally disconnected households during a time of nationwide social distancing. Washington and Massachusetts are on different coasts, but both states are working with publicly owned broadband networks to deploy emergency Wi-Fi hotspots in underserved communities in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Washington, a state-led initiative is deploying hundreds of new Wi-Fi access points with the help of community networks, including Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet), a statewide middle-mile network, and several Public Utility Districts (PUDs). And on the other side of the country, Massachusetts has enlisted the help of municipal network Whip City Fiber to establish Wi-Fi hotspots in communities with poor connectivity.

The drive-up public hotspots will allow residents of both states to complete online school assignments, apply for unemployment insurance, and connect with healthcare providers, among other essential tasks.

“We’ve all been in a position where we understand to connect to the world during this really challenging time, Wi-Fi is essential,” said Dr. Lisa Brown, Director of the Washington Department of Commerce, during a livestreamed launch of the state Wi-Fi initiative.

Washington Partners with PUDs for Wi-Fi

The initiative in Washington is being led by the Washington State Broadband Office and the Department of Commerce in partnership with NoaNet, regional PUDs, the Washington Independent Telecommunications Association, Washington Technology Solutions, Washington State University, and others. In addition to the existing Wi-Fi hotspots that schools and libraries have made accessible from their parking lots, the partners plan to set up more than 300 new access points in underserved areas, using state funding and philanthropic donations. A map of all public Wi-Fi locations is...

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Posted May 20, 2020 by Matthew Marcus

Across the country, more people than ever are working and learning from home, making a quality Internet connection vital for everyone in every locality during the Covid-19 pandemic. For Americans in inadequately connected areas — rural and urban — adapting to a more isolated and remote learning and working lifestyle proves extremely difficult when lacking a reliable Internet connection.

Many electric cooperatives and other broadband providers have quickly rolled out solutions to ensure that their subscribers are connected and well-equipped to adapt. Many of them are also working with community institutions to ensure all residents have some level of connectivity, especially children for remote learning purposes.

OzarksGo Brings Broadband to Busses

Ozarks Electric Cooperative has been working diligently with its fiber division, OzarksGo, to find solutions to improve connectivity for the communities it serves. In a phone interview, Steven Bandy, the general manager of Ozarks Electric, explained that as stay at home orders were issued, more and more homes within their service area were requesting new fiber hook ups. At the same time, families outside of their territory were scrambling for Internet connectivity.

school bus

OzarksGo serves nine counties in Arkansas and western Oklahoma, and they have thus far built out 75 percent of their network. They began deploying the network in 2016 and set a goal of having all of the fiber lit within six years. Bandy is still confident they can stick to this timeline, but he explained that the COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted their supply chain and temporarily slowed their ability to make new connections to homes.

That said, they are still finding innovative ways to increase connectivity for residents in their area. When employees of Ozarks Electric saw that the school districts in the counties they serve were planning to set up Wi-Fi hotspots in decommissioned school busses, Bandy and his team at OzarksGo reached out to see how they could help.

They currently have at least six mobile hotspots, three of which are busses connected to fiber, that are providing increased Wi-Fi connectivity throughout the region. Three of the Wi-Fi hotspots are specifically placed around...

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Posted May 19, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic pushed schools online, rural cooperatives and other local broadband providers have been coming up with innovative ways to connect students during this difficult time. Ozarks Electric Cooperative, with its broadband subsidiary OzarksGo, is one of the co-ops that caught our eye over the past few weeks with its creative solution.

This week, Christopher speaks with Steven Bandy, General Manager of OzarksGo, about the history of the co-op's fiber network and its new efforts to expand broadband access during the pandemic. They discuss the beginnings of Ozarks Electric's Fiber-to-the-Home network and the co-op's plan to connect all of its members in growing Arkansas and Oklahoma communities. OzarksGo has even expanded into a nearby city where it doesn't offer electric service after seeing that the community needed better quality connectivity. Co-op members are extremely enthusasitc about the co-op's fiber network, and Steven explains how people moving to the area target the Ozarks Electric service territory in their home search.

Christopher and Steven also talk about the effects of the pandemic on the co-op's fiber network, which has seen an increase in interest. Steven shares how the cooperative is partnering with a local school district to connect Wi-Fi hotspots on busses and in community buildings with fiber optic backhaul. In addition to bringing broadband access to students in response to Covid-19, OzarksGo has also increased speeds at no cost to subscribers.

This show is 19 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice ...

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Posted May 8, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

Earlier this week, Community Broadband Networks Director Christopher Mitchell joined the radio talk show 1A, distributed by NPR, to talk about poor connectivity in rural America and how the Covid-19 pandemic is exacerbating existing digital divides. U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger from Virginia and ranch owner Tiya Tonn from Kansas also called into the show.

Listen to the show.

Digging Into the Divide

Christopher and 1A’s other guests explained how rural Americans across the country, from the mountains of Appalachia to the plains of Kansas, struggle with inadequate Internet access. Broadband quality varies greatly, so some households must rely on spotty cell phone hotspots or fast food Wi-Fi networks while neighbors several miles down the road may have access to fiber optic connectivity.

1A logo

The pandemic is heightening the impacts of the rural digital divide on students and workers who now aren’t able to access their usual connectivity stopgaps, such as public Wi-Fi at libraries and schools. Tiya explained how the shaky broadband connection at her family’s ranch forces her to drive into town for routine activities, and her son spoke to the difficulties he experiences trying to attend online classes now that college campuses are closed.

But poor connectivity isn’t only a rural issue — people who lived near Houston and Columbus, Ohio, called into the show to share how they also can’t access high-speed broadband. Christopher added:

Even just three miles outside Chapel Hill, there are stories in North Carolina about people that are stuck on a technology that hasn’t been upgraded since before the kids that are in high school were born.

How to Expand Access

The guests also touched on government efforts to close the digital divide, particularly as Covid-19 highlights the connectivity crisis in rural America. Last week, Democrats in the U.S. House unveiled an updated plan to invest more than $80 billion in rural broadband expansion. Representative...

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Posted May 6, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

In response to the increased reliance on connectivity precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Minnesota Legislature is working on legislation to improve access to broadband, online education, and telehealth services throughout the state.

The Senate passed their version of the bipartisan funding bill, SF 4494, earlier this week, and the House has two similar pieces of legislation, HF 1507 and HF 3029, currently under consideration. If the bills are passed and signed into law, there would be a total of $20 million to $27 million (depending on how the different versions are reconciled) available in grants to support distance learning, telemedicine programs, and broadband deployment. Bill authors designed the legislation to prioritize the use of federal money for the grant programs before pulling from the state’s general fund.

Broadband Bills in House and Senate

The Minnesota Senate passed its version of the legislation, SF 4494, on May 4 in a unanimous vote. Representatives in the House have rolled the grant programs into a larger coronavirus relief package that is under consideration, HF 1507. This is in addition to keeping a separate House bill with the broadband funding provisions, HF 3029, alive in case HF 1507 fails to pass.

The bills direct grant funding to three connectivity issues: connecting students for distance education, expanding access to telemedicine services, and deploying broadband networks in unserved areas. To facilitate online education during the pandemic, the bills would make $8 million (SF 4494 and HF 3029) or $15 million (HF 1507) available in grants to schools through the state Department of Education to fund the distribution of devices like hotspots and to reimburse the cost of...

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Posted May 1, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

Not only has the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic exposed our nation’s dire lack of medical equipment and protective gear, but it has also shone a light on the inadequacy of our rural broadband networks.

A recent CNN article, “Why rural Americans are having a hard time working from home,” by Harmeet Kaur, explores the many struggles that rural households face now that jobs, schools, and everything else has moved online and their outdated broadband connections can’t keep up.

“We Should Be Embarrassed”

CNN reports that while only 1.4 percent of urban Americans don’t have access to broadband speeds of at least 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload, more than a quarter of rural households don’t have broadband available to them. And almost three quarters don’t have access to faster upload speeds of 25 Mbps.

These disparate stats are currently on display at parking lots across the country, as families without adequate home connectivity are forced to drive to open Wi-Fi hotspots and sit in their cars while completing assignments for school and work.

The article shared how one teacher in rural Virginia has turned her school’s parking lot into her new office:

Every Sunday since the coronavirus lockdown started, Stephanie Anstey drives 20 minutes from her home in Grottoes, Virginia, to sit in her school's near-empty parking lot and type away on her laptop. Anstey, a middle school history teacher, lives in a valley between two mountains, where the only available home internet option is a satellite connection. Her emails can take 30 seconds to load, only to quit mid-message. She can't even open files on Google Drive, let alone upload lesson modules or get on a Zoom call with colleagues.

“We are the country that created the internet,” Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks initiative, said in the article. “We should be embarrassed that millions of people have to drive to a closed library or a fast food restaurant in order to do their jobs or do their homework.”

High Costs, Slow Speeds

The CNN article points to a number of reasons for the dearth of high-quality Internet access throughout rural America.

Deploying broadband infrastructure is expensive in urban and rural communities, but in sparsely...

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Posted April 30, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

We last spoke to Brian Skelton, president of Tullahoma Utilities Authority, in 2013 for episode 54 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Since then, the Tennessee city's municipal fiber network, LightTube, has continued to offer Internet access, voice, and video services, attracting new businesses to the region.

For this episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, Christopher and Brian review the network's nearly 12-year-long history. Brian shares some of LightTube's early struggles and describes how the network has found success over the years, especially in promoting local economic development. He explains how a call center recently decided to locate in Tullahoma, due in part to the municipal fiber network, bringing 200 jobs to the city.

The pair also talk about how LightTube is adapting in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Brian says that the fiber network is holding up well, despite increased demand from families now stuck at home. Tullahoma Utilities Authority has suspended disconnections for non-payment during the public health crisis, but it has not lowered costs for broadband subscriptions. Brian shares how it can be difficult for a small provider to offer free or discounted services while continuing to cover its own costs.

To close out the interview, Brian relates his advice for other cities that are considering investing in broadband. While each community must make its own decisions, he's broadly optimistic about the potential for success in many cases.

...

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Posted April 23, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

Across the country, schools have shifted to distance learning after the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in widespread school closures and stay-at-home orders. But many students still can’t get online to learn. A recent survey of Los Angeles Schools found that 16 percent of students don’t have access to broadband and that 15 percent had not yet spoken with teachers.

To connect students on the wrong side of the digital divide, school districts in a number of cities, including Portland, Oregon and San Francisco, California, are working with Comcast to sponsor the cost of the company’s Internet Essentials program for low-income families in need of home broadband connections during the crisis.

In a press release, Guadalupe Guerrero, Superintendent of Portland Public Schools, said of the program:

As we transition from a traditional brick and mortar school experience to one that takes place online, it is more important than ever that we make every effort to remain connected to our students who rely on us for not only academics, but also essential needs and social and emotional supports. . . This partnership will allow us to stay connected to our students who need us most.

Schools Sponsor Student Service

To help ensure all students can access online education while schools are closed, San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and Portland Public Schools (PPS) plan to pay the monthly cost of Comcast’s Internet Essentials plan for eligible households. The school systems will distribute promotional codes to families who can then contact the company to sign up for broadband access at no cost.

SFUSD logo

Internet Essentials is Comcast’s affordable broadband plan for low-income households that qualify for a variety of public assistance programs. The program currently offers speeds of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. In response to the...

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Posted April 22, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

Schools across the country have moved instruction online in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, but many students are struggling to log in and learn. We’ve written before about how schools, libraries, and Internet access providers are taking steps to connect students with Wi-Fi hotspots. Still, many kids don’t have access to appropriate devices they can use to complete online schoolwork. According to PCs for People, a digital inclusion nonprofit and computer refurbisher, almost a quarter of students don’t have a computer.

To overcome that barrier, PCs for People partnered with Schoolclosures.org, GoFundMe, and Google Fiber to launch the Give Computers project, which will connect unused computers sitting in empty corporate offices with students in need. The initiative will refurbish computers and other devices donated by businesses and send them to eligible students. Details and donation information are available online.

Donation and Distribution Details

PCs for People and its partners will welcome donations from all businesses, from large corporations to small mom-and-pop shops, as well as from individuals. Accepted equipment includes working and non-working laptops, desktops, tablets, and computer accessories. PCs for People, which has an NAID AAA certification for data sanitization and R2 certification for e-waste recycling, will securely erase any data on the devices and restore the computers to operable condition, recycling any unusable devices or materials. More information is available in the Give Computers FAQ.

Submit an inquiry online if you wish to donate. PCs for People will help set up shipping or a free pickup for the equipment.

If your child or another student you know needs a device to complete online schoolwork and meets PCs for People’s eligibility guidelines, you can ...

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Posted April 21, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

Our lives have mostly moved online as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the millions of Americans who don't have access to home broadband have been left behind. Whether it's unavailable or just unaffordable, these families must risk their health to access essential services, like healthcare and education.

This week for the Community Broadband Bits podcast, Christopher talks with Angela Siefer, Executive Director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), about the many ways that the pandemic has highlighted digital divides in our country. Angela shares how NDIA is helping address urgent connectivity needs by supporting digital inclusion practitioners on the ground and by raising public awareness during the crisis.

One of NDIA's efforts is their list of Free and Low-Cost Internet Plans from national broadband providers. Christopher and Angela review some of the providers' offers and discuss the problems that NDIA has found with the plans. (Spoiler: Comcast is doing, well, pretty good actually. Charter Spectrum on the other hand . . . ) Angela explains why it's important that these plans serve more than just students if we want to keep people safe at home.

The pair also talk about creative efforts to temporarily deploy public Wi-Fi hotspots as well as longer term plans to improve broadband access and availability. However, Angela reminds...

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