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Local gov delivers equitable broadband during pandemic

Digital equity and access to broadband were key to local governments’ response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Specifically, the pandemic highlighted the need for county and city governments to provide their workers and K-12 students with internet connections and related technology, especially laptops, experts said during a June 4 CompTIA webinar titled “Stretching the Limits: Broadband Capacity and Availability in a Crisis.”

Albemarle County, Va., a largely rural area that is home to the University of Virginia, partnered with its public schools division to provide surplus laptops to social service workers who didn’t have them. With those laptops, county employees were able to work from home and connect to remote desktops on their work PCs.

All schools -- elementary through high -- were connected to fiber beforehand and allowed access to Wi-Fi from school parking lots so anyone could park and connect, said Mike Culp, director of information technology for the county, which also set up access points at libraries and community centers.

Montgomery County, Md., took a different approach, said Mitsuko Herrera, director of the ultraMontgomery broadband economic development program at the Office of Broadband Programs. Montgomery's public school system distributed more than 66,000 Chromebooks and 5,200 hotspots so students could learn from home.

“We particularly shied away from having students have Wi-Fi in the car or in parking lots because we felt that they were safer at home,” Herrera said. The county is considering outdoor Wi-Fi, however, as part of its larger strategy to offer support outside access and social distancing, she said.

For Mike Lynch, director of broadband and cable at the Boston Department of Innovation and Technology, the COVID response has been eye-opening. Half of school-aged children come from homes speaking a language other than English, 4,500 are homeless and one in five have no access to broadband, he said. More than half of students needed laptops and 10% needed connectivity. The city responded with 28,000 Chromebooks and 5,000 hotspots.

“Quite literally there were pallets of Chromebooks in the lobby of a school headquarters in Dudley Square,” Lynch said, “and principals and teachers were coming up in their own cars and delivering them to the houses of their students. That’s how this got distributed.”

The city also distributed 2,000 tablets with hotspots to vulnerable populations such as the elderly within a week.

The spotlight on IT that’s resulted from the COVID-19 crisis is largely positive, the experts said.

Before the pandemic hit, telework had been considered a HR issue, but when ultraMontgomery rolled out its response out and people saw the benefits of “telework and collaboration, they came to the Department of Technology Services,” Herrera said.

Before the stay-at-home orders went into effect, Montgomery County had about 285 teleworkers on an average day. Today, it has 4,000. As a result, the number of Microsoft Teams chat sessions jumped from an average of 241 per day before COVID to 2,100 a day in April and 1,700 a day in May. Private chat messages averaged about 1,000 per day and now sit at 18,000 a day -- a number Herrera said has not peaked.

“The first thing that the Technology Services Department did was … get authorization to exceed our budget so we could go out and purchase more computers and VPN licenses,” she said.

Albemarle County conducted a survey in January and automatically collected internet speed data on respondents. Now it’s combined all those data points to propose expansion broadband project areas and released a request for proposals on May 15. “The benefit of that is bearing fruit now,” Culp said.

“Many of the things that we’re saying now about broadband we’ve been saying for years. It’s just a matter now that people are listening much more closely,” Herrera said.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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