Broadband Program signup to help Rural CommunitiesThu, 20 May 2021 17:30:08 CDT
Oklahoma State University agricultural economics professor Brian Whitacre’s studies in recent years have focused on the value of broadband connectivity to rural communities. Last year brought that research into stark contrast.
Parts of Oklahoma were already at a significant economic disadvantage compared with the rest of the country and falling farther behind, Whitacre said. Then in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to stay home. It became obvious that job competition and student studies often comes down to who has reliable internet access – every missed connection ripples into cultural and economic losses.
As the Jean and Patsy Neustadt Chair in Agricultural Economics and OSU Extension rural development specialist, Whitacre was appointed by the state Senate last year to serve on the new Oklahoma Rural Broadband Expansion Council. In that position he’s been able to help promote corrections to the issues he’s been studying.
“Broadband does matter more than people realize when it comes to encouraging entrepreneurship, raising income levels, promoting civic engagement and helping with education,” he said. “It’s been challenging and satisfying to work on policies that we can put in place to encourage delivering broadband to rural areas.”
Most recently, those efforts have involved getting Oklahomans to sign up for the government’s Emergency Broadband Benefit, or EBB.
The COVID-19 stimulus bill passed in December included discounts for up to $50 per month toward broadband service – or $75 for most Oklahoma residents due to how “tribal lands” are defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – and a one-time discount of up to $100 for a computer for eligible households. According to the FCC, about 70 mobile and fixed broadband providers in Oklahoma will participate in the EBB program, including Suddenlink, AT&T, Cox, Nextlink Internet, Pioneer and Verizon. It’s a huge opportunity for those households still without broadband at home – and also those already with service but struggling to pay the bill. However, it has proven difficult to get people to sign up for the program and others like it unless they hear about it from someone they trust. That challenge has turned Whitacre into something of a high-speed evangelist – the EBB program will last only until six months after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declares the COVID-19 pandemic is over or if the program runs out of money, whichever is sooner. He urges nearly everyone he meets to apply.
Before EBB launched, Whitacre had been developing a side program of his own through OSU Extension to help people who can’t arrange home access. The hotspot technology-borrowing program is now at about 20 libraries across the state. Alison Bloyd, director of the Perkins Public Library, said the pilot project has taken her community into new territory.
“Having the devices and service provided and receiving support from Dr. Whitacre was critical to our early success,” Bloyd wrote. “As a small library with a limited budget, I had initial apprehensions about the project, but in general we have had a very positive experience, checking out six devices over 600 times to our community.”
She said a patron recently stopped by to thank her for the program. That woman’s daughter had lost her job during the pandemic shutdown, but the library hot spot allowed her to apply and interview for jobs. She landed a full-time position.
After seeing so many families come to her staff for help, Bloyd said, “It’s bittersweet when a long-time borrower tells us they no longer need a library device, because they have purchased their own.”
Whitacre wants to see more such bittersweet moments across the state as people take advantage of the EBB and other technology assistance programs to claim all the economic benefits they’ve been missing. Oklahoma’s average broadband adoption rate is ranked 40th in the nation; in some counties more than one-third of residents reported having no internet access, according to the U.S. Census Department.
“Broadband access is paramount to just about everything we do now, ranging from simply getting directions to getting healthcare to finding a job,” he said. “Oklahoma’s rural development depends on turning this situation around.”
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