Internet connectivity and the digital divide have been long-term challenges across the Eastern Shore as well as other rural and small town communities across the country.
The problem has jumped to the forefront again with the start of the new school year and school districts having students take classes from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Talbot County Public Schools reported 275 students missed the first day of online classes earlier this month. Many of those students missed school because they lack internet connections. The connectivity is an issue for other communities and students across the Shore.
Both TCPS and the Dorchester County Public Schools system have bought internet hotspots to help with lack of internet connections. Those efforts are welcomed.
Easton Utilities has also made internet access a priority both in terms of bringing affordable service to local residents and higher speeds for businesses. These efforts have helped improve the situation for many of our neighbors and local businesses. John Horner Jr, senior vice president and COO for Easton Utilities, compares the efforts to the push to bring electricity to homes and communities during the 20th century. Horner said the internet push is even more important now with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Easton Utilities has deployed free hotspots to help those without internet access during the pandemic. The utility is also nearing completion of a $12 million upgrade to its existing fiber network. Easton Utilities and Talbot County also partnered to secure a new $13.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to bring broadband service to rural and underserved areas of the county This is the type of leadership needed throughout the Eastern Shore.
U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said during a virtual town hall earlier this week that having the internet is akin to having electricity in the earlier part of the 20th century. Van Hollen is also right. Internet connections are essential on so many levels, especially for students and those looking for jobs.
It is about opportunity for all.
The Federal Communications Commission also launched a $20 billion rural broadband effort earlier this year. The state, local governments and the private sector need to maximize bringing investments from this federal effort to the Shore. Maryland is not a poor state and is long overdue addressing internet connectivity problems on the Shore.
We want all our students to have the best opportunity to succeed. They cannot do that without internet access.
The challenge is also about economic development, competitiveness and our regional workforce.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created the new dynamic of more workers doing their jobs from home. Some workers negatively impacted by the pandemic and its economic fallout are also creating new home-based businesses. Those workers and entrepreneurs need to have reliable and fast internet access to do their jobs and run their businesses.
There are plenty of professional, creative and technology workers as well as entrepreneurs from D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia and elsewhere who would love living on the Shore. But those workers and their kids need internet access to make a go of that. Digital divides on the Shore hurt not only students, they are a competitive blemish.
We need to turn this challenge around. We should all want every student, every young person to have opportunities to succeed. Solving the digital divide should be at the top of our list.