x
Breaking News
More () »

Maine's Leading Local News: Weather, Traffic, Sports and more | Maine | NewsCenterMaine.com

‘There will be a lasting impact’: How the pandemic magnified Maine’s digital divide

The success of remote learning greatly depends on a family’s access to the internet. It's estimated that tens of thousands of households lack internet access.

“My only concern is if we do go red [status] and we’re fully remote, can my internet keep up with all the computers working around the clock?” asked Amy McGee of West Gardiner—a mom of five kids, all of whom are learning from home.

“I had some trouble with the hot spot at home trying to work,” said Kim Slawson of Owls Head, a father of four. “I kept having to reconnect to it. Finally, I just had to give up and had to go to a restaurant and connect to their WiFi to get some work done and [my daughter] wasn’t able to do a Zoom meeting that she had.”

“I don’t ever lose internet here, so I don’t ever have internet issues,” said Ashley Lunt of Windsor and a mom of two kids.

How the remote learning experience is going in Maine, as it pertains to the internet, depends on who you ask and where they live.

“Broadband is what I refer to as a street by street battle,” said Peggy Schaffer, executive director of ConnectME Authority. “Because it really depends on where you live, what your connectivity is like.”

Eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic it is clear that broadband is now a basic need for people working from home and kids learning remotely.

RELATED: Back to school means navigating a whole new world for students and teachers

Tens of thousands of Maine households have limited or no access to high-speed internet. And that’s an underestimate, according to ConnectME Authority, which has been working for years to eliminate broadband barriers while supporting public-private partnerships to increase access to high-speed internet.

“What we know is 85,000 is probably the floor of who is not connected and not the ceiling,” said Schaffer.

Why is the number not accurate? Schaffer explained there are some caveats.

“What the FCC requires is that if you serve, or could reasonably serve an area in a census block, one house in a census block the entire census block is considered served. So what that means is there are many areas of the state where a home or a location in a census block could reasonably be served but is not, that entire census block is served. So we know that these numbers are understated, it’s understated nationwide,” she said.

RELATED: Mainers hope COVID-19 pandemic is catalyst for statewide broadband improvement

In March, when the pandemic first hit, Maine families found themselves suddenly at home, with little to no tools to learn remotely.

By mid-May, the state secured internet access for tens of thousands of students who reported facing connectivity issues by utilizing funds from the CARES Act and the GEER Fund, as well as philanthropic donations. The Department of Education acquired more than 14,000 service contracts through three different service providers, nearly all were for WiFi-enabled Samsung Galaxy Tablets to be used for school work and as hotspots. Through one of the service providers, Maine education officials ordered MiFi, to work like a mobile WiFi hotspot for some who need that. For those who needed a device, they secured and distributed more than 7,400 Chromebooks.

RELATED: Internet access secured for nearly 22,000 Maine students

That was months ago, and still, internet connectivity remains an issue in Maine.

“What people had sort of lived with is OK broadband. And since the beginning of this crisis it’s clear it’s not adequate anymore,” Schaffer said. "It has become a critical element of how people survive.”

Every broadband expert included in this story referred to ConnectME’s map of broadband availability in Maine to see what the coverage looks like from a visual standpoint. You can check it out by clicking here.

It shows the upload and download speeds. Nowadays, for example, when many people use Zoom, that requires the device to upload and download data. The green areas show that you can download 25 megabits of data per second and you can upload three megabits per second. Areas in the yellow show speed is a little slower and areas in the red show there is no internet connectivity.

However, is that 25x3 download/upload speed in areas of green adequate?

“In today’s world, it is not,” said John Dougherty, Vice President of Mission Broadband.

Mission Broadband is a consultant company that works with individual communities to help them access the internet. It conducted a recent statewide survey to get a better grip on the broadband demand. Of the 2,451 people who responded – a little more than 50% said their internet service was meeting their needs during this period. A little more than 49% said no. Almost a dead even divide.

Dougherty said this divide is a reflection of what's happening statewide and there are three things to consider in Maine.

“Number one do you have available broadband? Can you even subscribe to it? Is it available? And if it’s available, can you afford it?” he explained. “And then if you have it, is it adequate?”

Curious to know how the remote learning process has been going regarding internet connectivity and what kind of devices are being used, NEWS CENTER Maine heard from three different families in three different parts of the state every night for one week. Each family submitted video diaries throughout the week of October 19, 2020, to document how it was going in real-time.

Credit: NCM
We checked in with three Maine families with children learning remotely in different parts of the state. Each with different internet access.

ASHLEY LUNT, WINDSOR 

“We decided to do remote learning this year just because Paisley is considered high risk. And it was for the safety of her,” said Ashley Lunt.

Lunt is a mom of two kids in Windsor. Brystol is in first grade, Paisley is in 3rd grade.  Paisley was a preemie and has respiratory issues, which is why Lunt says her doctor advised her to stay home.

“Here in Windsor I don’t live really on a road that is very remote. I do have cable and I do have internet which is Spectrum. So I don’t have internet issues like most of our district does,” she said. “I’m very lucky at that.”

Lunt is also working from home. For her two daughters in elementary school don’t need to upload assignments or do Zoom interviews as often as an older student might. She did however opt out of using the school-provided devices and purchased an iPad to add to the one they already owned so her daughters could complete their work at the same time.

“The only issue I have is there is one program of Paisley’s that I can’t open on it but the IT department at Windsor is working with me to try to get it to work,” she explained.

While she didn’t have any internet connectivity issues that week, she did feel at times like the assignments for her 3rd grade student were “hit or miss,” meaning she didn’t have a structured schedule to follow like she was provided for her 1st grader. However, the schedule for Paisley did improve throughout the week.

“Overall my remote learning experience isn’t what I thought it was going to be,” said Lunt. “It still has a lot of struggles and things that need fixing but I see this being the way of the future. I don’t see us having any more snow days.”

She gave the week an eight out of ten rating, as the remote learning process improved the week of October 19 compared to the previous weeks.

AMY MCGEE, WEST GARDINER

“I am a mom of five and three days a week they are remote learning here with me and then in school the other two days a week.”

Amy McGee of West Gardiner, similar to Lunt, said she feels fortunate to live off the main road. She said usually her family's internet service is “pretty good.”

Her concern whether her internet connection is strong enough enough to handle five kids uploading and downloading on five devices all at one time during the day.

During the week of creating her digital diaries, one day there were just a few buffering issues, “but overall things went pretty smoothly.”

When she ended that entry she said she hoped everything would run as smooth in the days ahead. And it turns out, the rest of the week working remotely did run pretty smooth. However, she still has a couple of concerns.

“If we do go red and we’re fully remote, can my internet keep up with all the computers working around the clock?” she asked. “Also if we happen to lose power what are we going to do for the remote learning when everything is based off the computer?”

KIM SLAWSON, OWLS HEAD 

Kim Slawson’s story is much different. He and his wife both work from home and they have four kids who are also learning remotely, some on the same days.

His son Finn, in middle school, uses an iPad for schoolwork. Abby, who is in high school, uses another iPad. Both kids use the school hotspot.

“Between regular usage, software updates, and other data requirements that are not a hardship to those without a cap, we blow through the 20GB allotment in about two days, leaving us hobbled for the rest of the month,” he said.

They have three providers: Hughesnet satellite internet, Verizon tethering on Slawson’s cell phone plan, and a Verizon hotspot provided by the school. Slawson said satellite is a worst-case scenario backup connection just in case the others fail, “because it is quite unusable for just about anything online.”

For the week of October 19, working and learning from home appeared to be running better than normal. Until Friday.

“My high school-aged daughter and I both had some trouble today. I had some trouble with the hot spot at home trying to work. And I kept having to reconnect to it. Finally, I just had to give up and had to go to a restaurant and connect to their Wi-Fi to get some work done and she wasn’t able to do a Zoom meeting that she had,” he explained.

“It kept kicking her off and she had to keep trying to reconnect and eventually she switched to our satellite internet to try to do that and needless to say that didn’t work out very well. So hopefully better luck next time with that.”

RELATED: States eager to expand broadband, wary of CARES Act deadline

A STORY ALL TOO FAMILIAR

Unfortunately, Slawson’s story of internet frustration is all too familiar for many families in the state, according to Nick Battista, senior policy officer at the Island Institute.

“It’s hugely frustrating we hear those stories day in and day out,” he said.

When the pandemic hit, the Island Institute was among the first organizations to partner up with others to get hot-spots out to households in need.

“The pandemic certainly highlighted the challenges we all face in internet connectivity,” he said.

Battista said he has decent internet but when he and his wife are both at home trying to work over Zoom calls, the internet speed is not enough to support their simultaneous work.

“Broadband is a place-based infrastructure. You have telephone poles running out on the street in front of your house. Some of those poles have different internet service providers have different infrastructure on them,” he explained. “Building that kind of infrastructure doesn’t take place overnight.”

He said it’s a major challenge. However, there’s some proof that people are willing to support costly moves to make broadband access better.

RELATED: Voters decide Tuesday whether state should invest in high-speed internet infrastructure

In July, more than 75% of Maine voters approved $15 million for broadband infrastructure.

“It’s a really important first step for the state. It’s the first time the state’s made that kind of investment in broadband infrastructure,” he said.

But it’s only a step in the right direction, not the solution.

“In order to get every kid and every family connected to every school we’re going to need hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding,” he said.

Sen. Shenna Bellows (D-Manchester) echoes Battista’s call for action.

“There will be a lasting impact if we don’t take action to connect kids and families and Mainers online as quickly and effectively as possible,” she said.

Bellows is one of the co-chairs of the Broadband Caucus in the legislature.

“Even before the pandemic, broadband was a major priority," she said. “We had a very strong bi-partisan broadband process that was working on a number of initiatives.”

Those initiatives were to fund broadband infrastructure through bonding and to make it easier for local communities to access funds from the state to pursue their local broadband initiatives.

SO WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Bellows went on to say she thinks we need to "think big" and congress needs to make the decision to make the investment in creating universal access.

“During the great depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated rural electrification," she explained. "It was this moon-shot idea that every household in the United States would have electricity. And although it didn’t happen immediately that huge goal and immediate, enormous investment rather than incremental progress made a big difference.”

To solve this digital divide there are several things that need to happen.

It’s going to take time, it’s going to take investment from public/private partnerships as well as federal funding, and it’s going to take awareness. Every broadband expert interviewed for this story said there needs to be a better understanding and a more accurate picture of what the problem looks like and which specific areas need to be served.

That’s why there is a speed test pilot project happening in western Maine. It is starting to generate a map. It's expected to be formally launched statewide next week. People can report their own internet access and speeds, or lack thereof, to complete the map. You can view that map here.

There is some hope in the immediate future for hundreds of Maine students.

According to Kate Foye, spokesperson for the Department of Economic and Community Development, ConnectKidsNow! is a new initiative by the Mills Administration to further connect Maine students to high-speed internet access.

There is up to $12 million for projects already awarded and the program -- funded by the CARES Act -- is expected to connect an estimated 700 kids to the high-speed Internet in areas identified by the Department of Education and Connect Maine.

It will happen fast. The infrastructure needs to be built by the end of this year which is the deadline to use the funding.

We expect to learn more information from the state about this soon.