Pandemic exposes shortcomings in Vt. broadband infrastructure

Published: Apr. 22, 2020 at 9:22 AM EDT
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Hundreds of thousands of Vermonters are working and learning from home during the coronavirus pandemic, exposing both shortcomings in the state's broadband infrastructure and equity among school districts.

"We knew we had to do something, to try to do something to try to close the gap, because the gap just widens now that we're dependent on remote learning and devices," said Burlington School District Superintendent Yaw Obeng.

The district partnered with Burlington Telecom to give some families free WIFI so they can access classes. "And we started looking at how we could put this on our communications to let students and families know they could access these free services," Obeng said.

Burlington has been able to adapt while some rural communities still lack the basic broadband infrastructure.

Vermont Public Service Commissioner June Tierney Wednesday said the health crisis and its technological hurdles is shining a light on how many Vermonters live without consistent internet connectivity. "The COVID-19 emergency has starkly exposed how dependent we are on frequent and reliable access to internet to meet everyday needs," she said.

Prior to the crisis, Tierney says Vermonters could access internet at school, at work, or at the library. But under the stay-at-home order, many are in the dark, especially in rural areas. "They are now isolated in their homes unable to reach us, and we're unable to reach them," she said.

Whether its learning, working, or accessing telehealth remotely, Tierney says internet access is a must. "Until we have that information, we can't see you. And if we can's see you then we can't help you, but we very much want to," she said.

And when life returns to something that resembles normality, Obeng says lessons learned now will help all students learn equally. "This remote 21st century learning really tells us where we need to go in terms of making sure that there is not an equity divide among our students and learning," he said.

For those Vermonters struggling with internet connectivity issues, call the Department of Public Service consumer affairs hotline: 1-800-622-4496.

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