During her many years of being a teacher, after the students went home for the day, Cheryl Fulton stayed behind to do her work.
That’s because she has no internet service where she lives in Axton, a small community in Henry County between Danville and Martinsville.
“It feels like we’re in another world,” Fulton said.
Not having internet access was mostly a hassle. But since the coronavirus pandemic, it’s led to crippling effects.
Fulton couldn’t effectively teach her students at a high school in Guilford County, North Carolina, from home. She’d try to work out math problems with them by sending pictures back and forth over phone or email. She bought a cellphone booster to improve her cellphone signal, but it barely helped.
So after 42 years of teaching and realizing public schools likely won’t go back to normal in the fall, she retired at the end of the school year.
“I couldn’t do it,” Fulton said.
Having fast, reliable internet is essential for everything from getting a job to shopping. With the coronavirus pandemic forcing more people to work, shop and take classes from home and talk to their doctors on video chats rather than coming into the office, high-speed internet is more vital now than ever before.
At a time when having quality internet helps people stay connected, those without it feel the most alone.
“It hurts to know when you’re missing out,” Fulton said.
Fulton can’t join the family video chats from home. She’ll freeze or her audio will drop. Sometimes she’ll drive 17 miles to her sister’s house, which has a great internet connection.
While significant progress has been made over the years in expanding broadband service in rural parts of Virginia, many areas are still lagging behind. The coronavirus pandemic has revealed in the harshest way the digital divide, pushing federal, state and local governments to accelerate their efforts to build broadband infrastructure.
“A lot of people, including in Southwest Virginia, have access in ways they wouldn’t have had 10 years ago,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. “However, as more and more will be done with broadband, it makes the remaining inequities starker and more urgent in terms of solutions.”
Gov. Ralph Northam made closing the digital divide a top priority during his term and set a goal of 10 years to achieve functionally universal broadband coverage.
“There are 108,000 Virginians that can get online today that couldn’t prior to Gov. Northam making this a priority,” Evan Feinman, the governor’s chief broadband adviser, said during a recent virtual town hall with Kaine.
About 98% of homes and businesses in Virginia’s cities and suburbs have access to high-speed internet, meaning offering download speeds of 25 megabits per second or more. But nearly one-third of rural Virginia’s homes do not. About 11% have no access to any internet service, according to the 2019 Commonwealth Connect report on Northam’s initiative.
Funding has been a persistent problem, especially with homes and businesses spread out across the commonwealth and located in some of the more challenging terrain. And for people who were on the financial edge before the coronavirus crisis battered the economy and the job market, being able to afford internet is another problem.
A Roanoke Valley mother who is unemployed said her children didn’t have internet at home to properly do their homework because the service provider raised the issue of an outstanding bill. For the time being, neighbors are sharing their Wi-Fi.
“You’d think the internet provider would look past it for right now,” said the mother, who has been given anonymity to protect her from any other potential problems with the internet provider.
The pandemic smashed the state budget, causing it to postpone spending $16 million a year for expanding rural broadband.
The $2 trillion CARES Act, which Congress passed in March, included money for states, large cities and counties, but it didn’t directly funnel cash to communities with fewer than 500,000 residents. The state is doling out federal aid to localities, and they can use that for internet projects.
Congress has been considering additional relief proposals, including money for broadband. The Democratic-controlled House passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act that includes $4 billion for broadband, but the legislative package in its entirety is unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate.
“Under the current circumstances, this lack of broadband access threatens to greatly — and potentially lastingly — exacerbate disparities in health, education and economic equity,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who has written to the Federal Communications Commission with suggestions on how to reform rules to expand broadband.
“On nearly a daily basis, I hear from Virginians who are struggling to engage in telework, supervise their children’s online learning, and engage in telehealth over antiquated DSL connections that make even a single one of these activities virtually impossible.”