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COVID-19, connectivity should go hand-in-hand

COVID-19 has tested our health care systems, academic calendar, election process and personal resolve.

Moreover, it has highlighted the role that technology plays in our daily lives.

For some of us, technology, via our smartphones and devices, has allowed us to remain connected to friends, family, professors and co-workers.

For those who lack connectivity, the past few months have been frustrating as we deal with dropped calls, conference calls that sound like they were held in a cave and webinars that you can’t access. It’s illuminated a problem that the U.S. will likely be forced to address.

A March 17 Brookings Institute blog put it best: “We are not effectively using and disseminating 21st century tools to alleviate current and unforeseen problems.”

Part of the reason we can’t effectively use these tools is because we don’t have the telecommunications infrastructure in place to allow us to do so.

Moreover, many Pennsyl­vanians simply don’t have reliable connectivity or access to the devices that will allow them to thrive in the current environment. The Brookings blog went on to say that “we must tackle the broader shortcomings of not making digital access a national imperative.”

Locally, one area school district found that 25% of its students lacked connectivity. In a neighboring county, a district had to distribute Chromebooks to 23% of its student body because they did not own a computer.

School districts found that many of its families did not have a reliable internet connection. Some districts even established hot spots in their parking lots for community use.

These disparities are occurring in smaller, rural school districts that have constantly protested about the funding and resource gap that exists between rural and suburban and urban districts. The inequalities also made it more difficult on families that are trying to cope with the new role of parent educator that this pandemic has thrust upon them.

An easy way for the Pa. Legislature to make such inroads is to support policies that promote rural broadband investment and advance the deployment of small cells.

House Bill 1400 — the Small Wireless Facilities Deployment Act — could potentially do both, but inaction from both sides of the aisle has created unnecessary delays during a time when our reliance on technology has never been greater.

Let’s hope legislators stop pressing the pause button on policies that will improve our ability to remain connected.

Jerry Brant

Patton

(Editor’s note: The writer serves on the board of directors at the Pennsylvania Fire Emergency Safety Institute and has more than 50 years of experience as a chief officer and volunteer firefighter in rural Pennsylvania.)

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