As Students Move To Remote Learning And Employees Work From Home, Digital Divide Comes Into Focus

Mar 17, 2020

Credit Wikimedia Commons

Thousands of New Hampshire students, their parents and other employees will spend the next several weeks learning and working from home. But varying levels of broadband access and speed around the state might pose a challenge.

Scott Valcourt is the director of strategic technology at the University of New Hampshire. He says typically, the southern part of the state has pretty good broadband.

But many communities in the western and northern regions of the state are “underserved” meaning the internet they do have doesn't meet the federal definition of broadband, which is 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload.

Typically, folks in these communities look to the local spots that have faster internet. 

“They would normally go to the school or library to do what they need to do, and guess what? We’ve closed those,” Valcourt said.

Valcourt says if that is the case for families in New Hampshire, they should reach out to their school districts and let them know.

“Even today, we don’t see that there are so many people in our state who don’t have access to the internet right now,” he said. “We need to know that they’re there and keep them connected.”

Sturdy Thomas, who lives in Dublin, says his daughter will be completing the rest of her college semester from home, and he's worried she'll have issues completing all her classwork remotely. 

That town, which recently passed a bond that would allow for a private-public partnership to build fiber-to-the-home, is 83 percent underserved. 

The National Collaborative for Digital Equity, which is based in Weare, is working with the city of Manchester to refurbish computers and then redistribute them to families where there’s a known need for a computer at home.  

With more people using their home internet during non-peak hours, internet service providers will also have to adapt to a different traffic pattern.

“They’re working to make sure that any bandwidth movement that they need to do inside the networks is already in place,” Valcourt said. “So I think we’re going to be okay from that standpoint.”

Comcast will make its Xfinity WiFi hotspots available to subscribers and non-subscribers. (You can find a hotspot near you here.)

Several internet service providers, including Comcast and TDS, are providing 60 days of free internet to families with school age kids.

Valcourt says after this, it will be important to “[make] the digital divide disappear for all of us, including for our students, who are experiencing that poignantly when schools are closed,” Valcourt said.