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All Internet Connections Are Not Created Equal, Virus Proves

Communities in rural parts of Indiana are among those lacking Internet access. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed society to rely on the Internet, but many rural households struggle to connect online.

by Andy Knight, The Herald Bulletin / April 6, 2020
Shutterstock/Jakub Krechowicz

(TNS) — The coronavirus pandemic has driven millions into their homes and forced them to rely on the Internet to maintain vital connections with family and friends. But it has also laid bare an underlying problem: spotty, sometimes non-existent wireless service in rural areas – including some places in Madison County.

“I’ve called a bunch of places and the best (service) I found is one that’s like $100 a month,” said Michael Clark, who lives outside Alexandria. “A lot of places just don’t offer it where I live.”

At least 20 million people in the United States lack broadband Internet access, according to a report from the Federal Communications Commission. The divide, perhaps not surprisingly, falls largely along economic lines. A 2017 study by Deloitte, the world’s largest professional services company, found that rural customers sometimes pay more than three times more for broadband service than suburban customers.

During the pandemic, many major telecommunications companies are taking steps to mitigate cost issues, including waiving late payment fees and overage charges on data plans as well as opening public Wi-Fi hot spots for general use.

“Connectivity is always essential to our customers – doctors and nurses, first responders, governments, banks, grocery stores, pharmacies and others delivering vital services,” AT&T Communications CEO Jeff McElfresh wrote in an open letter on the company’s website. “It’s even more critical during a public health crisis that’s challenging everyone.”

In Madison County, officials are hearing scattered concerns about Internet access from residents who rely on public computers at libraries or community centers.

“We have had some people reach out to our office who are concerned with filing for unemployment,” said Christy Clark, executive assistant with the City of Elwood. “They don’t have home computers, the library is closed and stuff. A lot of what we’re doing now is just seeing what we can do to help.”

A spokesperson for AT&T said the company has seen significant spikes in bandwidth usage since early March, especially with video conferencing as businesses conduct meetings virtually. One day last week saw an estimated 16 million minutes of video calls across the company’s network, more than double the volume of an average day, according to Phil Hayes, lead public relations manager for AT&T’s corporate communications office in Chicago.

“We are adapting and adding capacity when and where needed to address the minimal congestion resulting from the shift of traffic from work and school to home,” Hayes said in an email.

As the federal government steps in to help businesses of all sizes with a $2.2 trillion stimulus package, some local officials see an opportunity to make meaningful improvements to the area’s broadband grid.

“It’s unfortunate that some of these issues have gone unaddressed for a long period of time,” says Clayton Whitson, president and CEO of the Madison County Chamber of Commerce. “But if we’re looking for a silver lining in all this, it’s that we could finally be seeing this come to the forefront of people’s minds as issues to be addressed.”

©2020 The Herald Bulletin (Anderson, Ind.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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