The coronavirus pandemic has amplified a disconnect in internet equality around the country, no more so than here in Deep East Texas.
Working from home and online learning were the norm in most parts of America during the height of the pandemic. What quickly became clear during stay-home orders is that rural Texans are at an extreme disadvantage due to a lack of internet access.
A 2019 study by the Deep East Texas Council of Governments found that fiber optic cable needed for broadband internet exists in less than 15 percent of the places it’s needed around the region. The Pew Research Center found that 1 in 4 Americans lack high-speed internet access, either because of high prices or limited service in rural areas.
Education has perhaps been hardest hit by the internet disparity during the pandemic. Schools around the country tried a variety of different solutions which usually ended with students sitting in parking lots to finish homework.
The education process has suffered, and in situations like this, it will continue to suffer if nothing is done.
The good news is that Austin, Washington and internet service providers are getting an earful from rural Texans who suddenly found themselves locked out of a digital world.
During a joint press conference with Gov. Greg Abbott this week, Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson said the pandemic was a wakeup call for rural residents lacking internet access. Members of the Texas Forest Country Partnership expressed the same sentiment to Sen. John Cornyn last week. Cornyn said he had been in talks with AT&T executives who suggested Congress move forward with internet expansion initiatives.
On the state level, Rep. Travis Clardy and Sen. Robert Nichols have done a great job in fostering the expansion of internet services for rural Texans, but more must be done.
For too long, internet has been viewed as a luxury rather than a necessity. The same was once true for every utility that we now consider vital.
Take this example from the June 17, 1882, edition of The Electrician, a weekly physics journal.
“We are informed that the electric light is not needed; it is a superfluity, a wasteful expenditure of light, an infraction of the laws of nature, ‘tending to turn night into day’ — is, in short, a luxury of the sinful sort of which pious vestries and wealthy citizens alike should religiously eschew,” the journal says in an lengthy editorial following a detailed mathematical analysis of different types of electric lamps.
“Gas is itself a luxury. Not so many years ago it was an unobtainable luxury. Compared to oil lamps in the street, it was and is a blessed luxury; in some situations it is still a luxury for the distant future only; while in many other which ‘never are, but always to be blessed’ we are content that the luxury of gas can never pollute them,” it continues.
Today, to a home without electricity — and sometimes still natural gas — is unthinkable. Those are barbaric conditions, we think.
Times change, and now is time for internet expansion. This boon of science has become not merely a luxury but a necessity of civilized life.