STRAFFORD — It wasn’t uncommon, even before the novel coronavirus pandemic, to see people working on laptops or phones from inside their cars on the dirt strip beside the tiny Morrill Memorial & Harris Library.
“Some people are out there for quite a while. I don’t know if they’re watching movies or what,” said Library Director Melissa Strayton.
Such is life for many people in this rural town, where internet access is spotty, cellphone service is practically nonexistent and “more than a few” families live off the grid, Strayton said.
She hasn’t noted an increase in drive-up internet users at the library since the coronavirus crisis forced schools to close and many companies to implement remote-work arrangements, but she knows the closures are going to prove problematic for many people around the Upper Valley, where high-speed internet service can be lacking, especially in remote areas.
“It’s definitely going to be an issue,” Strayton said.
Suddenly, the digital divide, as it’s called, feels more pronounced.
Internet-related frustrations were among the many concerns flooding Vermont state Rep. Jim Masland’s voicemail and email inbox last week.
“It’s just plain complicated, no matter how you look at it,” the Thetford Democrat said.
Masland will be working remotely himself when the legislative session resumes this week via Zoom, an online teleconferencing app. He expects there may be some technological challenges along the way, especially for colleagues in remote areas.
Masland is also on the executive committee for ECFiber, a municipality of 24 towns that’s building a public fiber optic internet. New subscriptions were rapidly coming in last week, he said.
“We’re connecting as fast as our crews can connect,” Masland said.
The public internet option, which both states recently passed legislation to facilitate, appears promising for rural areas where internet companies have been slow to invest. But those solutions won’t happen soon enough to help people during the coronavirus closures.
In the short term, a variety of efforts to bridge the divide are taking shape.
Internet and cellphone service providers around the region have announced new services during the closures.
For example, Comcast is temporarily offering its “Internet Essentials” package free to families who qualify by income and increasing its speed. Some cellphone companies are offering unlimited data during the crisis, an option that could help households in regions where there is cell service but no internet service.
The Vermont Department of Public Safety and the Department of Libraries have teamed up to create a list of places people can go to access free Wi-Fi. A survey went out to libraries last week, asking whether they offered internet services and whether those services are accessible from outside the building and at all hours.
In the weeks to come, having access to the internet will be critical, not just for work and school, but for filing for unemployment benefits, paying bills and staying informed, said Jason Broughton, state librarian for the Department of Libraries.
“It’s a utility, basically,” he said. “There’s a huge need for it.”
Schools are also continuing their efforts to get all their students connected. Most conducted surveys last week to identify families that don’t have internet and determine solutions.
The Mascoma Valley Regional School District has 50 “hotspots,” devices that enable people with access to a cell signal to access the internet, and has already distributed about 20.
Consolidated Communications, the phone company that purchased what used to be FairPoint, is also offering two months’ free internet service to students in its service territory who don’t currently have it, according to Craig Suttie, Mascoma’s technology director.
“We’ve got two good options here to get people going on remote learning,” he said Friday.
Newport Superintendent Brendan Minnihan said only a small number of families have no options for getting online. Students from those families will have packets printed out that they can pick up or have delivered. “It doesn’t mean they’ll be doing the same thing, but they’ll cover the same competencies,” Minnihan said.
Larry Dougher, chief information officer for Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union, helped put together a newsletter for families compiling all the provider offers and other technology-related information. They’ve also been doing house calls to check connections and troubleshoot.
Like Minnihan, Dougher said only a handful of families have no connectivity options. “It’s not perfect but we’re in good shape,” he said. “I’m very impressed with the work the teachers have done.”
However small their numbers may be, families without internet will be locked out of a world of creative learning opportunities and resources and unable to connect with their classmates and peers.
Preparing engaging materials for those students is a priority, said New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, but he doesn’t believe they’re at a disadvantage.
“Learning can still take place,” he said. “There was a time when no one had internet.”