Community Commentary/Opinion: A community challenge to fix student broadband access
To Parties Concerned with Equity and Access in the Charlottesville/Albemarle Area:
The Daily Progress editorial on Saturday, June 20, 2020 —which first appeared in The (Fredericksburg) Free Lance-Star — told the story of a Pennsylvania community which did not have broadband access. Concerned citizens banded together and essentially built their own internet system, including a 120-foot tower. Very admirable!
So, what does this have to do with our community? We also have an access issue, made starker by having our children quarantined at home from COVID-19. Many students in our area do not have internet access or adequate connectivity to be able to do their schoolwork online. Nor do their parents. Nor do some of their teachers. It is an equity issue that disproportionately affects low socioeconomic families and families of color, but also hinders folks who simply live in rural areas where it is not profitable enough for companies to provide access to the internet.
The Albemarle Broadband Authority, formed by the Board of Supervisors in 2017, has the goal “to extend affordable broadband internet service to every customer in Albemarle County.” This authority in partnership with CenturyLink has received a $291,300 state grant to pursue this goal. Will we help them make it a reality?
We are beginning another school year in 10 weeks, and our students are likely to be at home at least half the time, working online, if they are able. Parents, who can, will need to be working from home to supervise their children. Will we make online learning and working possible for all?
It’s a solvable problem, and I firmly believe the resources exist in THIS community, not every community, but here in Charlottesville/Albemarle it could happen. It’s one equity issue that could be solved if we had the will. The school systems know which families need internet and whether the issues are financial or access because of where they live.
We need a two-pronged approach. One could be a fund like the Dominion Energy Share program which provides financial assistance to families who need money for their electric bill. We have enough wealth in this area to make that happen if some agency would coordinate it.
Then, we need to build actual infrastructure to reach our rural areas. We know how to do this, but we need a corporate and philanthropic commitment to make it happen. Our internet providers and the school systems know where and who we need to reach, as do our families. We just need to actually, literally, reach out to them. Like everywhere, we have people out of work who need jobs. A short-term commitment to building the needed infrastructure could create some well-paying jobs, a win-win for everyone.
Who might help: The Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, the Chamber of Commerce and Leadership Charlottesville, CenturyLink, Comcast, the University of Virginia, our major corporations, the Dave Matthews Band (though they do so much for us already), Jaffray Woodriff, Oliver Kuttner, Coran Capshaw, the Smith family, Dr. Charles Hurt and other major land developers, the Trump family, the Tom Tom Foundation and the Public Education Fund, just to name a few.
I don’t have all the answers, nor the know how to do all of this, but I’m willing to help and to contribute. I challenge our community to rise to the occasion. Let’s solve this one equity issue.