By Terri Jo Neff
In March, the Foundation for Rural Service (FRS) released a report on the pandemic’s impact across rural America, particularly after millions of people were forced to conduct most of their daily life, business, and education online.
“Never before has reliable access to high-speed internet been as important as it has been during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said FRS Executive Director Pam Becker. “Broadband connects us to our work, education, health care, government programs and—most importantly—one another.
In rural Arizona, the pandemic made it apparent that Internet “is quickly becoming the fourth utility and a necessity right along with gas, electricity, and water,” according to Heather Floyd, spokesperson for Valley TeleCom Group (VTC). “The pandemic only increased the speed that society moved to depending on Internet to facilitate our day to day lives.”
VTC started as a telephone cooperative serving southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico in the 1960s. Over the years, its service area has expanded to provide phone and Internet service to more than 20 rural communities spread over thousands of square miles, many of which are in mountainous areas.
For the past five years, the company proactively installed fiber Internet technology to all the schools in its service area. When COVID-19 and its various lockdowns hit last year, the disparity between Internet service in Arizona’s rural and metropolitan areas became more glaring, particularly for kids forced into remote learning, said Floyd.
VTC officials stepped up and implemented a number of activities in response to COVID-19, including providing free Internet service for 40 homes from April to June 2020, installing 8 WiFi Hotspots throughout its territory, and offering discounted service for 37 households.
Then in May of this year, VTC got on board with the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBBP) which provided $10,000 each to 10 school district in the company’s service territory for the purchase of laptops and tablets for students doing in-home learning.
But VTC isn’t resting on its laurels, according to Floyd.
This school year, company officials continue to facilitate opportunities for students in VTC’s service communities, including providing 17 schools and 7 libraries with fiber internet, considered the best level of service. Also being continued is VTC’s involvement with the FCC’s EBBP which will provide a discount of up to $50 a month for households struggling to pay for Internet.
Schools within VTC’s service area also have a new tool -the FCC’s Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF)- for providing in-home Internet access for students and teachers. ECF reimburses schools for equipment and internet access for those who need Internet connections placed in their homes.
And another option became available Aug. 1 for students unable to sign up for ECF, Floyd said. The option, Discounted Access for Student Homework (DASH), provides Internet service for students at only $29.95 per month. DASH, which is designed for educational use, is filtered to comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), so many entertainment websites are blocked.
More information about VTC’s programs can be found at https://www.vtc.net