The Digital Divide: The lack of sufficient broadband internet access in ConVal towns

  • Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Tim Theberge of Hancock summarized the status of local broadband initiatives, and representatives from WiValley, Consolidated Communications, and Matrix spoke at Wednesday's meeting at ConVal. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • Tim Theberge of Hancock summarized the status of local broadband initiatives, and representatives from WiValley, Consolidated Communications, and Matrix spoke at Wednesday's meeting at ConVal. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 9/25/2019 6:44:46 PM

Last week, the ConVal School District Selectman Advisory Committee devoted an entire meeting to the need for high-speed, broadband internet access throughout the nine-town school district.

When talking about internet access in their communities, attendees said, it is a quality of life issue and spoke about their hopes for the future of the area.

About twenty people attended the meeting, including representatives from six of the ConVal district’s nine towns.

“That’s hopeful,” Peterborough Selectwoman Karen Hatcher said on Monday. “It means we’re all interested and we’re all searching for solutions.”

Representatives from broadband companies Matrix, Consolidated Communications, and WiValley described their businesses and answered questions. The Selectman’s Advisory Committee had additionally invited Comcast and TDS.

“Towns that don’t have broadband aren’t going to attract any new families,” said Chris Lynch of Matrix Design Group.

He described a lack of broadband as a “death cycle” for a town, as it prevents the influx of new residents and discourages high school graduates from making a living in the area. Despite this, many attendees expressed frustration with the lack of options and progress towards faster internet.

“It falls on deaf ears,” one selectman said, when he brings up broadband to residents.

Broadband internet is currently defined by the FCC as internet with a download speed at or higher than 25 Mb per second and an upload speed of 1 Mb per second, commonly abbreviated as “25/3.” This is the current speed determined to adequately provide advanced telecommunications capability, defined as service “that enables users to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications using any technology.”

The ConVal School District turned its attention to the broadband issue, because, as an invitation letter by ConVal Board Chair Myron Steere III stated, every town in the school district besides Antrim has less than 100 percent access to broadband internet.

Mark Schaub, the District Systems Administrator of ConVal, said that ConVal’s “blended learning” initiative, seeking to blend online and in-person learning, relies on students’ ability to access the content outside school in order to reserve school hours for face-to-face time with the teacher. Students can download content onto school-issued Chromebooks so they can read it offline if their home internet is insufficient, he said, but that puts the onus on the student to put everything they need on the device before they go home.

The Ledger-Transcript noted in 2017 that this has been an issue for other area school districts as well.

Speakers listed some specific ways broadband affects the quality of life beyond school-related issues. These included reports of realtors unable to sell homes without broadband in Hancock and a dearth of options for professionals looking to work from home.

In addition, rural homes with insufficient internet miss out on for-granted entertainment like video streaming and video gaming.

Lynch pointed out that the cost for broadband is less than DIRECTV, if that’s a household’s sole form of entertainment. Lynch said that older residents who might not think they could benefit from broadband may have grand kids that are impacted, or they themselves could benefit from applications of telehealth, which could allow them to live independently, longer.

The Selectman’s Advisory Committee plan to meet at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept 26, at the SAU office. Hatcher said one item on the agenda is for selectmen to debrief on the Sept 18 meeting. She hopes that additionally, representatives from each town will commit to mapping the current internet service in their town, and draft a request for information to various broadband companies to compare company information to in-town mapping results.

Editor’s note: The conversation about  the digital divide is not new. Rural America continues to lag behind urban areas when it comes to high-speed, broadband internet access and adequate cell service. Here in the Monadnock Region, the divide continues to drive away businesses as well as residents, impacting jobs and property values. In our new series, “Digital Divide,” we’ll look at the issue from a variety of perspectives. Today’s first installment focuses on the impact on education as classrooms struggle to provide a 21st century education to students with varying access to high speed internet.

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