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News & Press: In the Media

Rural Vermonters Struggle to Overcome the State's Digital Divide

Monday, April 27, 2020   (0 Comments)

In normal times, it can be a challenge for Mitch Hunt to track down students or staff at the 140-acre Maplehill School and Farm in Plainfield, where he's a dean. Since the coronavirus pandemic forced the small alternative school to suspend classes in March, however, Hunt has had to go to even greater lengths to connect with his charges.

Like many rural Vermonters, he has limited internet access and no cellphone service at his Northeast Kingdom home in Craftsbury, about 40 minutes north of Plainfield. So, to connect with students and staff, he drives several miles daily into the village of Craftsbury Common to use the public library's Wi-Fi connection.

The library is closed, of course, so he does much of his work from the front seat of his Toyota Matrix in the parking lot.

"I'm pretty much managing a school from my car," Hunt said one rainy April afternoon outside the white clapboard building.

Hunt is not alone. Most days, several people work in vehicles alongside his, some for just a few minutes and others for hours, according to librarian Susan O'Connell.

Nor is Craftsbury the only town where rural Vermonters find themselves in search of a digital connection as they try to work and learn online. The coronavirus crisis has thrown into stark relief the digital divide between places like Chittenden County, where cellphone service and high-speed internet access are nearly universal, and rural towns with widely scattered homes not served by cell towers or broadband connections.

Without broadband access, it can be difficult or impossible for parents to work from home, for children to take part in video calls with teachers and for patients to stay connected with their doctors through tele-health programs.

Despite federal investments designed to improve the state's connectivity, rural areas are "really up a creek" — their economies left in the lurch and their residents struggling to keep up, Rep. Laura Sibilia (I-Dover) said last week.

"It's like we're trying to run with a twisted ankle," Sibilia said. "This crisis is exacerbating the digital inequities that we were already experiencing in terms of education, government access and health care."

Schools in Sibilia's legislative district — six tiny rural towns near the Massachusetts border — report that significant numbers of students lack broadband access at home. A survey by the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union showed 20 percent of families had limited internet speeds or data caps. The actual number is likely higher because the survey, conducted in part online, may not have captured everybody without internet service, according to superintendent Barbara Anne Komons-Montroll.

State leaders, educators and data service providers are acutely aware of the problem and are scrambling to address it.

"The crisis is highlighting that this infrastructure is necessary, and it's inadequate," said June Tierney, commissioner of the state Department of Public Service. Her department has worked for years to improve rural connectivity, largely by advocating for increased federal investment in data networks.

The need is more acute in the coronavirus era.

"Now we have the government directing people to stay home," Tierney said. "We have the government directing people to get their educational needs met at home. So, government clearly has an obligation to make that feasible."

About 77 percent of addresses in Vermont have access to broadband internet service, defined as a download speed of at least 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of three megabits per second, according to the Public Service Board.

Read the full Seven Days article by Kevin McCallum