Internet access has become a big deal during the various shutdowns due to the coronavirus.
For the families that don’t have it, a couple of recent bills passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump will help.
“We have some students who don’t have the internet at home,” said Otsego Local Schools superintendent Adam Koch. “We put a survey out before this all happened. I don’t know the exact number, but I’d be willing to say 15-20%.”
That means approximately 200 students in the district don’t have the internet, many without the option. Even if the family could pay the rates from the local provider, it’s not available.
Bowling Green State University computer science chair Jong Kawn Lee, Ph.D., said internet access in rural areas is a problem.
“With rural areas, because we are talking about the USA, it is wide open, especially in Ohio, the houses are very far away. So putting in (cable) requires quite a bit of work. It’s a similar thing with wireless network, we still need to build towers,” Lee said.
Social and economic discussions about the lack of infrastructure and it’s impact on rural communities have been made by proponents who want to increase rural connectivity. However, the benefits of internet and broadband access for rural farm communities that may have half a mile, or more, of distance between households are often outweighed by the costs of laying cable or building towers that likely to never pay for themselves.
In Congress, provision of this type of access has been pushed by Rep. Bob Latta, R-Bowling Green, the leading Republican on the Communications and Technology Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
In the wake of trillion-dollar stimulus packages, the signing of his DATA Act and Secure 5G and Beyond Act of 2020 on March 23 received little fanfare.
But the acts are likely to spur an invisible transformation for rural communities, Latta said.
He estimated that the percentage seen by Koch could be representative of the national situation.
“The reality is, many Americans across the country and Ohioans in the district I represent who live in rural areas don’t have reliable internet connectivity. If that doesn’t change, they will be left behind,” Latta said.
The DATA Act will allow for the Federal Communications Commission to upgrade its data access maps. This is important because, until its passage, there wasn’t a problem, officially.
“One benefit of the bill is that it will allow for the decision-makers to see the accuracy of what is covered, and accuracy in what is lacking, in terms of accessibility,” Lee said. “Ohio is somewhere in the middle among the 50 states in terms of accessibility to the broadband network, but still there people who don’t have any access.”
Latta found this to be true — just by using his phone in his district.
“As members (of Congress) in our districts, I’m in my car all the time. I’m looking a map of internet access and it’s not even close. I’m talking to people all the time and they are saying they don’t have (internet access) here,” Latta said. “There’s no reason for the FCC to put money into something if you don’t know if it’s accurate to begin with.”
The old rules mapped internet connectivity hotspots according to census tracts and zip codes. If one household had access, there officially was connectivity in the zip code.
“Some people who have access still have many problems,” Lee said. “Sometimes there is only one service provider and it may not have a great bandwidth. Depending on the wireless or wired network, if too many people are using it at any one time there are limitations. Given the advancement of technology, the change from 4G to 5G will help a little bit.”
The two bills combined will help ease the problem, because the need has immediate applications.
Earlier this year Latta had FCC Chairman Ajit Pai visit Mercy Health in Perrysburg to see some of the possibilities for life-saving applications for the upgraded systems.
The hospital has a new mobile telehealth program that allows paramedics to administer care at an emergency site with the input of specialists who can make video diagnoses remotely. Unfortunately, depending on the direction they drive, the mobile unit loses internet connectivity within about a 15-minute drive. That means the doctor, who might not even be at the hospital, can’t physically see the patient, because the video feed will be lost.
The timing of the two broadband bills is also important, for funding. Addressing coronavirus economic losses, the CARES act will be pumping $100 million into the FCC, $13.5 billion to K-12 education, $14.5 billion to higher education and $75 billion to healthcare and hospitals.
“In some cases you have school districts that might not have the wherewithal to get this done, so that’s what those dollars are going to help do, is move things forward so those students can distance learn,” Latta said. “We want to see everyone get back into classes, but at the same time you’re going to see distance learning catch on faster because of what’s happened.”
Just like the physical infrastructure represented by roads allows for the transfer of physical items, the information superhighway will allow for a lot of information transfer, Latta said.
Small businesses, local governments and farmers will benefit from the infrastructure improvements as a byproduct of the broadband internet infrastructure money for telehealth and education. It won’t be immediate, but they are building the maps now, Latta said.
Website of source