As COVID-19 spreads across the world and throughout the United States, government officials are taking increasingly cautious measures to keep citizens safe such as social distancing by staying home or imposing a city-wide curfew. For many with children, that means homeschooling, with the help of digital learning from their regular schools. Remote and rural areas with poor or very little broadband internet access, however, have been left in an educational vacuum. In addition to a lack of digital education tools for children staying home, families are left without access to updates on COVID-19 or health and safety restrictions.
According to ABC News, in many communities from Appalachia to Montana, sufficient internet service is only available in city centers from major chains like Starbucks or local coffee shops that are known to have a good connection. In response, the Federal Communications Commission, as well as internet providers, are working to put short-term fixes in place. These temporary solutions include removing data caps, providing free access to low-income consumers and increasing the range of local cellphone towers. These steps will help enable those without sufficient home broadband connections to stay informed during a rapidly changing time.On March 23, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana introduced new, bipartisan legislation, according to the Senate website. If passed, the bill would provide $2 billion in funding for rural communities to better maintain internet connection throughout the COVID-19 crisis.
"With schools transitioning to online learning and parents relying on internet access to get their next paycheck, rural broadband is more essential now than ever," said Tester.
Tester has also called on the FCC to increase access to the Rural Health Care Program, which would allow better access to telecommunications with healthcare providers for rural families and communities. Digital access to doctors and health professionals is becoming increasingly important to prevent people from visiting hospitals for nonessential needs and potentially contracting or spreading the virus.
According to Pew Research, 73 percent of American adults have access to home broadband, yet rural communities remain less likely to have broadband service at home. About one in five American adults are also said to be "smartphone-only." This means this group of adults have a smartphone but do not broadband service at home. As updates on the virus become daily, data usage for this category of people could skyrocket, making efforts such as removing data caps a necessary measure to keep rural Americans safe throughout the ever-evolving crisis.