Senator Hassan, Roundtable Participants Discuss How the COVID-19 Pandemic Is Further Exposing the Digital Divide in New Hampshire’s Rural and Underserved Communities
U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan led a virtual roundtable discussion today, along with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, and health, education, and business leaders from across New Hampshire about expanding broadband in the state’s rural and underserved communities amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“New Hampshire, like many other states around the country, really has some challenges, both geographically and in terms of financial barriers, to access high-speed internet,” Senator Hassan said. “This was true even before the pandemic hit, and now here we are during the pandemic and it has really laid bare the importance of accessing high-speed internet, but also the disparities that exist.”
Commissioner Rosenworcel echoed these sentiments, stating, “With this pandemic, in New Hampshire and across the country, I think we are exposing a really hard truth, which is that the digital divide is really big. And as a nation, we’ve been asked to go online for work, for education, for health care, for everything. In fact, having that connection is essential to maintain any semblance of modern life right now. So my thinking is how do we use this crisis to get broadband to all.”
The participants spoke to Senator Hassan and Commissioner Rosenworcel about telehealth and remote learning during the pandemic, and the challenges that their communities are facing due to a lack of adequate broadband coverage.
Dr. Kevin Curtis, Medical Director for the Center for Telehealth and Connected Care at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, discussed the importance of the hospital’s telehealth program amid the COVID-19 pandemic, “We went from what was seven outpatient virtual visits per day to over 2,000 a day, and we're probably at about 50,000 of those in the current pandemic period. As you can imagine these are appointments that couldn't have happened otherwise and that could only happen - in many cases - in the face of adequate broadband."
Tim Murphy, Executive Director of the Southwest Region Planning Commission, also emphasized the continued importance of broadband access even after this pandemic, stating, "Enhanced reliance on broadband during this initial experience with the pandemic should make it clear that it will continue to play a vital role going forward. We often have compared broadband today to electrification 80 years ago - particularity in some of the rural areas - in the face of the pandemic, broadband is much more than that as it allows for the continuation of system in a world which requires physical distancing.”
The participants also discussed how the lack of adequate broadband access has made it difficult for many students and teachers to conduct remote learning. To address this challenge, Senator Hassan has introduced legislation aimed at ensuring all K-12 students have access to adequate home internet connectivity and devices during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Emergency Educational Connections Act would provide schools that qualify under the FCC’s E-Rate program, which traditionally is used to help connect the nation’s schools and libraries to the internet, with funding to purchase equipment, such as WiFi hotspots or modems, to help students access high-speed internet from their home.
Julie King, Superintendent of the Berlin School District, emphasized the important role that the E-Rate program has played in getting high-speed internet into her classrooms: “We have over 50% free and reduced lunch rate, which is of course, an indicator of poverty in our community...every one of our students has a Chromebook as a tool for use. We have taken advantage over the years of grant money, any grant money we could get our hands on, as well as the E-Rate through the FCC to widen our infrastructure and make sure every classroom has access to broadband.”
Commissioner Rosenworcel agreed about the importance of expanding broadband for remote learning, "The FCC does have programs to help address the digital divide, but I think the challenge is how do we make them adequate for this moment and I think in particular E-Rate, which has helped connect our nation's classrooms for decades. We need to start recognizing the classrooms at home and start to use the law to connect every child at home. I think that we have the power to do that in the law today...which is why the legislation Senator Hassan is sponsoring is so important.”
Terry Burlingame, a Spanish Educator for the Gilmanton School District and NEA-NH Director, also pointed out that broadband connectivity is not isolated to only rural areas, “I was shocked that so many cities reported to me...that they have connectivity issues. It's sporadic, it freezes, they've had issues trying to stay on.”