Vermont Lieutenant Governor Launches Discussion Series To Address Key Pandemic Topics
Vermont’s new Lieutenant Governor recently kicked off a new discussion series that is intended to bring together experts and advocates on critical topics the state is facing in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The first topic: broadband.
Vermont Democratic Lieutenant Governor Molly Gray started the “Seat at the Table” series this week to highlight how the pandemic is affecting services and economic opportunity across the state.
The Democrat says while high speed internet access is not a new issue, lack of access is impacting communities in new ways. “From telehealth to online learning and remote work to economic opportunity and public safety broadband has been the pathway, or the highway rather, for a lot of basic human needs across the state. So today is about elevating those needs and elevating the voices of communities impacted across Vermont.”
With many professionals working from home Vermont Chamber of Commerce President Betsy Bishop says business owners need reliable high speed internet available both at their business and for their remote workers. “Employers are looking at what post-pandemic world looks like. They’re talking about bringing back their workers but the majority of them are talking about a hybrid model. So it’s important to make sure that our entire state is covered so people are not now looking at a new normal where they’re restricted to job access based on where they live or what their broadband connection is.”
Vermont Principals’ Association Executive Director Jay Nichols said about 20 percent of students do not have access to reliable internet and the pandemic highlights not only limited access but affordability and educational impacts. “The pandemic actually has served to widen the learning gap between the haves and have nots just based on where someone lives and whether or not they can have access. As schools turn more and more into the uses of technology to augment and innovate instructionally we need to make sure that all students have access to high quality internet at their homes. And that’s not just during a pandemic. That’s during normal times whatever the new normal is going to look like. We need to get to a place where all students have that access. It needs to be a fundamental human rights issue for our students.”
Broadband needs extend beyond business and education. AARP Vermont Director of Advocacy Philene Taormina said their members need it to access support services and to safely age in place. “There’s also civic engagement, connections to friends and family, entertainment, educational opportunities, telehealth and all kinds of vital programs that people access online now. So they completely are shut out if they don’t have access to high speed internet. The other issue is affordability. As income declines so does high speed internet access.”
Taormina added that AARP is among the groups pushing for broadband to be considered a public utility just like electric and water. “The difference is that with electric and water you turn on a light switch, you turn on the faucet. With broadband or high speed internet just because it gets to your door doesn’t mean you know how to use it. There’s a real expectation that people who have access to the internet know how to use it in every way and older Vermonters definitely need more help with that.”
Vermont Public Interest Research Group Communications and Engagement Director Zach Tomanelli says even if broadband access is made available the state must address affordability. “We are often focused on the sort of geographic lack of access. But if you can’t afford the monthly service then it doesn’t really matter because you have the technology running outside your windows. This digital divide, this lack of access, it’s not going to just go away. So this is something that I think that the state needs to be keenly focused on and start thinking about what are possible long term solutions.”