New Push in Vt. to Ensure Web Connectivity During COVID-19 Crisis

More WiFi hotspots are rolling out across rural communities

NBC Universal, Inc.

With the COVID-19 crisis highlighting gaps in internet connectivity, Vermont officials and rural communities are working to ensure more families can get online.

In Grand Isle County, school superintendent Mike Clark said several families have recently told him of painfully slow internet speeds, or if signals are strong enough, the need to rely on smartphones to access the web—which can burn through data.

Clark said in his own home, in a rural town in nearby Franklin County, his slow connection speeds can make video meetings difficult to manage.

"I'm imagining people all over Vermont are experiencing those kinds of issues," Clark said Thursday, referring to how internet use has changed with much more work and learning shifting online during the COVID-19 crisis.

Clark told NECN and NBC10 Boston he is thrilled to now have a free WiFi access point on each of the schools in the county, including Isle La Motte Elementary—which the superintendent said serves just 18 students in Kindergarten through 6th grade.

"To make sure that we had equity, we wanted to make sure everybody had access to WiFi," Clark said.

According to the administration of Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, the hotspot devices were donated by Microsoft's Airband Initiative, which aims to deliver broadband access to underserved areas.

"Which a lot of people in the cities take for granted," observed Steve Hubbard, whose Framingham, Massachusetts-based RTO Wireless specializes in rural expansions of web access like the recent additions to the Champlain Islands.

RTO and a Vermont installing firm, Up and Running IT, teamed with Microsoft for the project.

Their top mission was addressing what the Scott administration said was more than 30 Vermont towns that had no publicly-available WiFi where people could get online while practicing safe social distancing.

Hubbard said he wanted to make sure kids weren't shut out of remote learning.

"Hopefully, it buys us a little time so they aren't taking a step backwards," Hubbard said of students in rural communities.

The hotspot units have strong signals where multiple students can be in cars with their families in school parking lots for their uploads and downloads on school-provided laptops, Clark noted.

"It's no stretch to say the internet has become the major highway in Vermont," Commissioner June Tierney of the Vermont Public Service Department said, adding that more expansion is ahead.

Tierney told reporters Wednesday she wants people who are unable to get online to let her department know. Then, the commissioner said, it can prioritize helping folks who need access to telemedicine, learning, or work opportunities.

Tierney urged Vermonters who cannot reliably access the internet to contact her office at 1-800-622-4496 for guidance.

She also pointed Vermonters to a map of publicly-available WiFi hotspots to help them find access.

Mike Clark described the new systems as game changers that'll really help Champlain islanders with their high-speed needs.

"It's just an equalizer," the superintendent said. "It's amazing."

Clark said people in the communities he serves are already finding the hotspots, but he expects to see more usage as awareness spreads.

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