COVID-19 reveals lack of internet service in rural areas | news



OKLAHOMA CITY – When COVID-19 hit, schools switched to virtual education, doctors to telemedicine, and businesses to remote working.

But Oklahomans living in much of the state, including the three-person district of Okmulgee, Okfuskee, and Hughes of Rep. Logan Phillips, have come under pressure from a lack of internet access. Several cities in Phillips’ area cannot even receive a cellular signal.

Phillips, R-Mounds, said when schools in his area were closed, students in his area could not attend virtual classes, senior citizens seeking shelter at home did not have access to their doctors, and the lack of internet enabled them Prevented voters from working remotely.

“It brought our citizens in the rural areas to their knees,” said Phillips. “Companies ran out. All have suffered simply because they lacked connection to the larger world. “

The lack of internet or reliable high-speed broadband has long been a problem in much of Oklahoma, but officials said the gap was widened by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Phillips said that almost one in five Oklahoma households has no internet access at all. More than half of the state is classified as “underserved” under federal guidelines, which means they have some Internet access, but it is well below federal standards – 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits upload. This is usually required to stream virtual meetings or Netflix.

Priority No. 1

Phillips is co-chair of a state committee tasked with creating the basic infrastructure and devising a plan for the state to drive expansion into unserved and underserved areas. He said improving broadband Internet access in rural Oklahoma was the # 1 priority for the House Republican caucus. Legislators in this chamber plan to pass a number of bills to address the issue in the coming week.

Phillips said the federal government is investing billions in expanding broadband access, but heads of state urgently need to align state law with federal requirements in order to receive those dollars.

Lawmakers said its larger broadband roll-out strategy is based on raising federal funding and incentivizing private companies to expand.

Some legislative measures include making it easier for ISPs to use existing easements and infrastructures such as power poles, creating a tax incentive and grant program, increasing tribal involvement, and a plan to map all existing broadband, fiber optic, cable, cellular operators, and adoption rates by the end of 2021.

“I tell people the only good thing about COVID is that everyone has been made aware of how little our infrastructure is really lacking in this area,” said Phillips. “It shone like the hole we see in everything from telemedicine to virtual education to economic connectivity.”

According to Brian Whitacre, a professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University, Oklahoma lags behind the national average for general broadband availability. His research focuses on broadband access and usage. He is also a member of the state’s Rural Broadband Expansion Council.

Nationwide, about 83% of rural Americans have access to broadband Internet, he said; in Oklahoma just over 7 out of 10.

Economic reality

Whitacre said the economy plays a huge role in this. The state has some fairly sparsely populated areas, and the decision of private companies to invest in broadband infrastructure is often influenced by how much money they get for it.

“They don’t get a return on investment in some of these very sparsely populated areas,” he said.

He also said Oklahomans are also less likely to adopt broadband when it becomes available.

“Even if rural areas had the same availability as urban areas, there would still be lower adoption rates due to characteristics such as income levels and age,” said Whitacre. “Rural areas tend to have lower income levels, slightly older populations and are associated with lower adoption rates.”

Whitacre said the main reason people don’t use the internet once it becomes available is because of its cost. Some people just don’t have the $ 60 to $ 80 a month.

He said Congress increased a broadband connection subsidy from $ 9 per month to $ 50 as part of the latest stimulus package. The federal government is still working on the details, but Whitacre said increased subsidies should be available over the next few months to those who qualify for grocery stamps or other programs.

He also said the state had successfully raised federal funds in the past to fund the expansion. A number of Oklahoma companies received a portion of the $ 9.2 billion from the federal government’s Rural Digital Opportunities Fund auction. These funds will be paid out over a 10-year period, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

However, Whitacre said there is no government program that can fund ISPs in underserved areas.

He also said several other states have allocated up to $ 200 million in grants that can be used for these areas.

“My part of the group is pushing for it,” he said. “The idea is that we can pick those places that are left behind, find out which ones are most needed, and then allocate funds when they are made available by our state assembly.”

He said Oklahoma shouldn’t want to be at the bottom.

“We certainly don’t want to lag behind,” said Whitacre. “It’s not good for business. It is not good for all of the educational and economic outcomes that we would like to be associated with. “

$ 600 per month

State Senator James Leewright, R-Bristow, said he was paying nearly $ 600 a month so his four children could practically go to school during the pandemic. Since he doesn’t have reliable high-speed internet access at home, he had to buy a wireless hotspot and a cell phone signal booster.

Leewright, chairman of the Senate Committee on Economics, Trade and Tourism, said when meeting with companies considering moving to rural Oklahoma, the lack of connectivity was an obstacle.

“I’ve been amazed almost every time, connectivity is usually their first question and one of their biggest problems because (their) business needs to be connected,” he said.

Barry Moore, a lobbyist for the rural telecommunications industry in Oklahoma, said smaller telecommunications companies are investing in expanding the broadband network.

“It’s impressive what the phone companies and carriers have done in Oklahoma,” he said. “It’s a very expensive process. It takes time. Topography is always an issue. “

The installation of the infrastructure costs an average of 45,000 to 65,000 US dollars per mile, depending on the topography.

Moore said a company serving Oklahoma’s three sparsely populated panhandle counties was only about a year away from having fiber optic for almost all homes in its service area. The company relied on government grant and loan programs, but it took nearly 20 years of extensive work to get to that point, he said.

He also said that some Oklahomans just don’t want the internet, which is fine, but it should be taken into account when counting how many are underserved.

Moore said it will need a partnership between rural telecommunications companies and large corporations to address the problem.

In a statement, AT&T said it understands that every American needs to have affordable access to the Internet, and is expanding and improving its networks to bring more people access. From 2017 to 2019, the company invested more than $ 825 million in wireless and wired networks in Oklahoma.

“We believe we can work with the federal government that can provide bold action and funding to help us and others in the industry provide accessible, affordable and sustainable universal Internet access,” the company said.

Janelle Stecklein reports on the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites.



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