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Opinion: COVID-19 Pandemic —  A rallying cry for rural broadband expansion

By Scott Rotruck

Despite its tragedies, the COVID Pandemic has been an unexpected catalyst for change. 

Businesses, schools, healthcare providers, and others have had to adapt at breakneck speed, moving much of what we do online.  Now policymakers have to step up and make sure everyone, particularly rural residents, are connected to broadband.  It is critical to ensure that all West Virginians have a place at the table in the 21st century economy.

Scott Rotruck

The pandemic’s disruptions have fallen hardest on those without broadband.  Shifting to online learning for example is challenging enough for teachers, students and parents under the best of circumstances — especially when students are not online at home. 

After Governor Justice closed schools to in classroom instruction in March, West Virginia educators moved to institute Full Remote Learning, supplemented by non-digital distance learning approaches.  Teachers made home deliveries of materials where broadband access was insufficient.  Our teachers, parents, local boards and administrators–with continuing support from the State Department of Education–all came together as a community for our students.

As we step up plans for the fall, the West Virginia Department of Education, in consultation with diverse stakeholders, has developed School System Re-entry and Recovery Guidance to help counties and districts implement best practices.  Every student needs every possible opportunity to learn and thrive.

Broadband is playing a critical part in distance learning.  The private sector has invested nearly $2 trillion in broadband infrastructure since 1996, and as a result, 95% of all Americans have access to high-speed broadband at home. 

But even with massive investment thus far, broadband deployment drops off quickly in rural and mountain areas where it’s harder and more expensive to connect each home. 

That’s the main reason why West Virginia ranks near the bottom of all U.S. states in broadband coverage.  More than 17% of West Virginians lack access to high-speed networks, and in some counties, well over half of the residents are unserved.  And that’s unacceptable.

In Washington, D.C., where Senators Manchin and Capito have long been national leaders on rural broadband issues, the pandemic seems to have reminded their colleagues in both parties of the urgency of boosting rural broadband funding.  A bill passed by the House earlier this month included $80 billion to expand broadband into unserved areas nationwide and Senate leaders have also recognized the need to address the crisis.

As we try to solve it, we need to learn the lessons from past federal programs that fell short of their goals.

In the 2009 economic stimulus legislation, billions in broadband funding for the Rural Utility Service were directed to 7 million rural households, but only connected fewer than 1 million.   Outdated regulations prevented a fully competitive process and often diverted funds to communities that already have broadband.  This time, Congress needs to reform outdated rules to ensure more competition, and make sure that funds are directed to the communities that don’t already have broadband.

For our part, West Virginia has been working hard to create universal broadband for all our citizens, especially in rural areas.  The West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council has created an ambitious five-year plan to bring broadband service to families who lack it, which is critical to further both education and economic growth in the state. But more federal resources, with smart reforms to ensure the job gets done, are needed to ensure success.

The state of West Virginia, along with key partners like the Benedum Foundation, has made big investments to advance our state’s education system.  These initiatives – and the creative and holistic approaches by educators that accompany them – are working.  West Virginia is now a national leader in early childhood development and has achieved one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country.  And this is only a start. 

These successes now need to be matched now at every grade level.  Universal broadband, especially in our rural areas, is a key part of the puzzle – as is supporting our educators, parents and students with the digital training and resources that will be necessary for success in online and traditional education.

Meeting the challenges of this pandemic will take all hands-on deck.  Our schools, administrators, and teachers are committed to making this work for every West Virginia student.

— Scott Rotruck is Chair of the West Virginia Public Education Collaborative, a member of the West Virginia Board of Education and a former member of the board of directors for the Education Alliance.

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