Even In Crisis Times, There Is A Push To Wire Rural America

The following was published by NPR on April 24, 2020.

As the COVID-19 crisis took hold and schools in Lockhart, Texas, had to close and shift to remote learning, the school district quickly conducted a needs assessment.

They found that half of their 6,000 students have no high-speed Internet at home. And despite being a short drive south of Austin, a third of all the students and staff live in “dead zones,” where Internet and cell service aren’t even available. None of this was surprising to Mark Estrada, superintendent at the Lockhart Independent School District.

“Students who have been historically underserved just continue to have that fate as technology becomes a bigger part of educational practices,” Estrada says.

At a time when many of us are going online to do everything from work to school to shopping to health care, the COVID-19 crisis is shining a big light on the haves and have-nots when it comes to the Internet. The federal government estimates upwards of a third of all people in rural America have little or no access to the Internet, a statistic that could only worsen as the economic fallout from the pandemic continues.

Fortunately in Lockhart, Estrada and his staff were already shepherding through a plan to address this digital divide before COVID-19 hit.

It’s now being fast-tracked.

With the help of a local Internet provider, the district is installing seven booster towers outside each of its schools. These will beam the Internet into every home that needs it across the 300-square-mile district. It will be free to families, costing the district just $30 a year per household. Estrada says he expects 700 homes to connect to the school’s Internet service by July.

“I’m just incredibly proud that our school district is filling that void for the people in the community,” he says.

This means Estrada and his staff must keep one eye on the immediate crisis — their district is also providing about 10,000 meals to needy kids a day — but the other toward the future.

Before COVID-19, schools like Lockhart were already looking to modernize their curriculum and better suit the needs of a 21st century student. For instance, teachers figured that sometimes it’s more practical for students to do some coursework remotely, assuming they have workable Internet, while meeting at other parts of the day for more interactive lessons.

Estrada says there’s a realization that COVID-19 may forever alter what schools look like; they can’t just turn the lights back on and continue on as before.

“But I think that this is an opportunity for us to really reimagine how we can use our resources,” Estrada says.

Crisis into opportunity

Finding opportunity out of a crisis is something Jessica Rosenworcel preaches all the time at the Federal Communications Commission. Since 2012, she’s been a lead voice on the FCC in the push to digitize rural America. Her calls are getting louder since the COVID-19 pandemic, when tens of millions of Americans have been shuttered in their homes.

“I don’t think this crisis creates as many new problems as it does expose existing ones,” Rosenworcel says.

Rosenworcel points back to the Great Depression, when the U.S. government paid to bring electricity to rural areas. The Rural Electrification Act was seen as too cost prohibitive initially. But it happened, and the broader country benefited, she says.

“We did that and it was audacious for infrastructure at the time,” Rosenworcel says. “We need to do it again, we need a rural digitization act now.”

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