The coronavirus pandemic has made working and learning remotely the new norm. While many people may enjoy this lifestyle, working and learning from home is a real challenge for individuals with internet connectivity issues. 

 In part three of our digital series Remote Learning, Producer Dave Fraser looks at the rural towns of western New England and the issues some face when it comes to high-speed internet access.  

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: Since the beginning of the pandemic, some school districts have gone to great lengths to provide their students with digital devices so they can continue their schooling from home. And teachers quickly pivoted and advanced their remote teaching skills.

But one formidable barrier remains: poor internet connections. In the final installment of our three part digital series, Remote Learning, producer Dave Fraser looks at the rural towns of western New England and the issues some face when it comes to a high speed internet connection.

Dave Fraser, Connecting Point: For many of us, a good Internet connection is as common as hot and cold running water.

But in the Hilltowns of western Mass in Berkshire County, a good Internet connection is not always the case. And in some cases, it doesn’t exist at all.

Cecelia Caldwell, Student: I think a lot of the trouble around remote learning has been internet. And the fact that a lot of people kind of live in the middle of nowhere, don’t have good connectivity.

Trinity Vincelette, Student: People who didn’t have a great wi-fi connections, or were in more like remote parts of the Berkshires, really didn’t weren’t able to, like, attend and just kind of fell behind.

Wendy Berman, Parent: People are seeing how critical it is. So, it’s even more important that we we have this. And everyone else in the state, out East has had this for quite some time. And they don’t — I don’t think they realize the struggles that we have out here.

Dave Fraser: For more than a decade, the rural communities in western Massachusetts have been thought of as too small for investment by cable companies and virtually abandoned by the area’s dominant telephone company, leaving its residents in a digital divide when it comes to high-speed internet.

Peter Larkin, Massachusetts Broadband Institute: To think about it, if you didn’t have access to the internet from your home, if you couldn’t access your schoolwork, if you couldn’t access your work, if you couldn’t do that through the internet. That’s really what’s left. These towns are un-served. They have no service whatsoever.

Dave Fraser: In 2008, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute was created by the state to help bridge the gap and bring high speed internet to communities struggling to get online.

One of its efforts, The Last Mile Program, focuses on more than 50 under-served and un-served towns in western and central Massachusetts.

Peter Larkin: We’re working together with municipalities to build their own networks. And we’re also working with providers, cable providers like Charter and Comcast, that are building out further into communities that are budding their networks.

And we’re also working with independent providers to build networks as Fiber Connect is recently going into Monterey and Egremont.

Dave Fraser: When the pandemic hit, the challenges of internet connectivity were once again brought to the forefront for rural communities. But issues of internet connectivity exist in urban communities as well, according to State Senator Adam Hinds, whose district includes Berkshire County.

Senator Adam Hinds, (D – Pittsfield): A lot of students in downtown Pittsfield have also been exposed to this problem at the start of COVID, where their families didn’t have access either to the hardware or to the wi-fi access because of not paying for subscriptions and the like.

So, it’s a much bigger problem, quite honestly, across the board than a lot of us appreciated before COVID.

Dave Fraser: Because of that, Hinds has introduced a bill to study the possibility of making broadband a utility in the Commonwealth.

Senator Adam Hinds: First, of course, is the infrastructure for for having access to high speed internet. But the other is, is access through affordable rates. And so, we’re trying to make sure that we can have guaranteed low rates for folks on the low income side of the scale, the income scale. And so, that’s one thing that we’re we’re working to push through to really ensure that we can get to universal access.

Dave Fraser: In the meantime, as remote work and learning continues for many, MBI installed mobile hotspots in some municipal buildings, giving residents a faster way to tap into the outside world.

Peter Larkin: So, we did that in those communities that had no services. It gives them more because more people are now at home, but they have to drive to it, it’s not at home. And that’s what we’ve done there.

So we’re trying to find ways for bridges to tomorrow today in providing those hotspots.