Opinion: Pennsylvania Must Narrow Its Digital Divide

As students from more populous, wealthier districts pivoted to online learning after the state ordered school closures to facilitate social distancing, poorer districts, especially those in rural areas, were scrambling.

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Slow or unreliable internet access is a reality for millions of Americans.
ben dalton/Flickr, CC BY-SA
(TNS) — It is not as if the high-speed internet inequities plaguing broad swaths of rural Pennsylvania were any secret. Residents have been sharing their struggles and frustrations for years. In Huntingdon County, residents went so far recently as to build themselves a system complete with a mountaintop radio tower, as WHYY.org detailed.

Market forces stymie solutions, at least on the scale needed. Without incentives from government, telecommunications companies have long balked at making the sizable investments needed because they just would not pay off.

We can thank the coronavirus for this at least: It has thrown into high relief just how damaging that disparity is for rural communities. As students from more populous, wealthier districts neatly pivoted to online learning after Gov. Tom Wolf ordered school closures to facilitate social distancing, poorer districts, especially those in rural areas, were left scrambling.

Many students did not have school-provided digital devices or the internet access required to use them. As reporter Ed Palattella detailed, some local districts adapted by printing off learning materials.

The Fort LeBoeuf School District set up Wi-Fi hot spots in the parking lots of two schools. We credit their resourcefulness. But imagine you are a parent trying to work from home and the inconvenience of building that trek into your daily routine.

Each minute counts in the state's jam-packed 180-day window of learning. How could disadvantaged rural students not fall behind under these conditions?

Not much bright news has accompanied the pandemic. But on Tuesday the Federal Communications Commission announced that Armstrong Telecommunications has been awarded $2.6 million to expand high-speed internet to 2,000 rural households and businesses in Erie, Crawford and Mercer counties, with the bulk of the expansion targeting 1,876 sites in Erie County.

The money will be dispersed over 10 years and is part of the ongoing Connection America Fund initiative. The grant mandates that Armstrong install at least 40 percent of the broadband network within the first three years.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the agency is helping to bridge the digital divide in rural Pennsylvania and looks forward to finding ways to "continue to make a difference" in those communities.

We yearn for a return to "normal" life. But the pandemic has shown that normal was not good enough for too many people.

That includes rural residents left to compete in this high-tech world without the broadband infrastructure so vital to health care, business, education and public safety. The service is not a luxury but an essential utility, akin to electricity and clean water.

This FCC investment is welcome, but more is needed in a state where, by the most favorable estimates, hundreds of thousands of people lack access. As we seek ways to increase resiliency post-pandemic, this must rank high on the national agenda.

©2020 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.