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Social Distancing and Internet Access

The titanic impact of COVID-19 is driving us to an increasingly digital existence. People that can, work from home. Many if not most universities have shifted to online classes. In some locales, K-12 students need access to the internet.

Electronic data shared between physicians, clinics, and hospitals is greatly aiding the sharing of information about the impact of our pandemic and how we can manage it. Broadband access is now not just a luxury but a necessity of life in the age of a pandemic where social distancing is of utmost importance. A real problem exists with rural areas however because it just isn’t there in many places.

Throughout the previous century and into the 21st, there has been a gradual population shift from rural to urban locales. Early on this was dominated in a shift from subsistence farming to a reliance on cash crops. Later, it was driven by the mechanization of farming technology.

Rural electrification bolstered the success of rural life. President Roosevelt signed an executive order in 1935 which was followed later with legislation creating the Rural Electrification Administration. Were it not for this act, life in rural areas would have disappeared even faster. Electrification brought some parity to rural life compared to life in the cities.

As we now rapidly transition to the age of the internet, there is a new form of disparity between the cities and rural areas. Access to broadband internet is becoming essential to both learning and earning in contemporary society. Increasing numbers of jobs depend absolutely on broadband internet. With quality internet access, many jobs could come back to rural areas. Rural life is inherently attractive to many but there has to be an income source

The value of broadband internet has been recognized now and even the smallest schools have access. But what about when the children go home? Not so much. The best method for broadband is fiber optic cables but the cost for rolling out the cable is unattractive to commercial entities. Broadband can be delivered via a cell phone signal to many rural areas, but again low population densities mean low income for private investment.

The Ozarks present a particular difficulty because of the topology, deeply cut serpentine valleys mean even more towers are necessary for complete coverage. It is time to consider a significant effort to support bringing broadband internet to rural areas, just like rural electrification. In fact, the electric coops could act to broker the delivery. The poles to string cables are already there. It would require an expansion of the skill set for the coops to manage internet connections, but that in itself would bring jobs back.

It’s time to bridge the digital divide and bring our rural areas into the twenty-first century. Children at home need access to high-speed internet. Modern home security systems require connectivity, even many personal health notification devices for the elderly require access.

We will get through this pandemic but we need to redouble our efforts to keep all of our society connected via broadband access. Everyone, both urban and rural needs to included in our civilization.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.