Schools across the country and in Georgia have shut their doors to protect students and staff from the COVID-19 outbreak, but the impacts have been harder on those in the many rural counties across the state. Not only are teachers struggling to find ways to teach their students, they’re having trouble making any consistent contact with their students at all. Counties like Oglethorpe County with only one traffic signal, have roughly 15,000 people across the 439 square miles within the county lines and internet access is sparse for its residents.
The Oglethorpe County School Superintendent Beverly Levine told the Athens Banner-Herald, “Internet access is one of our biggest challenges. We still have a lot of areas without Internet access.” The district has set up a wifi hot-spot at the Oglethorpe County High School football field, but that has been used by not just students in the district, but college students that have been displaced from their classrooms as a result of the pandemic.
State agencies and private companies are working to help with websites like broadband.georgia.gov, set up by the Governor’s office to help citizens learn how they might be able to connect. The site contains a list of publicly available Wi-Fi spots, but the problem is counties like Clarke, Madison, Oglethorpe and Oconee have zero listed hot spots.
The Georgia Department of Community Affairs has taken action to show students where they can connect to the internet. On the agency’s Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative website, a page has been set up designated specifically for students looking to connect to the internet. The website can be found at https://broadband.georgia.gov/georgia-internet-access-covid-19-update.
Broadband expansion has been a goal of the Georgia General Assembly in recent years with the state House of Representatives passing a bill just last month that could reduce the fees Georgia’s electric membership cooperatives (EMCs) charge cable and telecom providers to use their utility poles to deploy broadband services to consumers at a reasonable rate. Cable and telecom providers have already pledged to expand broadband service to thousands in unserved areas of the state if the bill is passed. The Senate is expected to review and consider the bill when lawmakers return to the Capitol.
Broadband access is key for the economic success and well-being of Georgians, now more than ever. Whether students are trying to connect to online classrooms or employees are forced to work from home, internet access is essential to carry on everyday life or try to keep some sense of normalcy.