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Balderson: Online world closed off to rural Ohioans without broadband

Washington, May 24, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust our society into a new reality – one in which everyday activities like working, going to school, and spending time with loved ones now take place online. These changes occurred seemingly overnight, and just as quickly have reshaped the future of business, education, and our daily lives.

As this new reality took shape, the differences in access to one key commodity highlighted a divide between Ohioans: those with reliable internet access and those without. While everyone has faced new challenges during this pandemic, a lack of reliable internet access adds a layer of difficulty.

This issue disproportionately affects Ohio’s rural communities. Broadband internet providers are often rural Ohioans’ only option for connectivity, but gaps in coverage maps leave many disconnected. Without reliable internet access, some Ohioans face extraordinary disadvantages.

Many employers have implemented telework options to keep employees safe, which is unfeasible for those lacking the fundamental resources to connect online. This is just one example of the stark divide, and how the online world has closed off those without internet access and left them behind.

When classrooms suddenly moved online, all faced a learning curve as our education system adapted. Students unequipped with proper resources, however—including rural and low-income students without home computers or broadband internet—suddenly found themselves unable to access lessons and homework. This creates the potential for rural and low-income students to fall behind their peers.

Concerned about this, I asked the Department of Education to explore alternative solutions for these students to access educational tools in this abruptly-online world. I’m pleased that many of Ohio’s K-12 schools have developed solutions to address this situation, such as enabling students to pick up printed packets and supplies. This is a great temporary fix, but the underlying issue remains: Ohio’s students need the ability to connect to online learning resources from home.

Likewise, as commerce has transitioned online, we’ve seen an expansion of telehealth. This healthcare medium has never been so important as it is now, when Ohioans—including both care providers and patients—stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Telehealth enables both parties to remain safely distanced without sacrificing vital care.

As such, I recently worked on bipartisan legislation that helped expand telehealth access through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to include services by physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech language pathologists. While these virtual services allow Ohioans to receive care during this pandemic, telehealth is rendered useless when neither of the parties have reliable internet.

While it’s critical that broadband coverage expands to meet the needs of rural Ohioans, it’s equally important to ensure that those who currently have service don’t suffer any gaps. I worked to ensure my colleagues and I included funding for small broadband providers in COVID-19 relief package legislation so they can sustain critical services during the pandemic.

Recently, the IRS developed an online-only portal for Americans to access information about their COVID-19 economic impact payments. Without internet access, some Ohioans were unable to make changes to banking and address information and track their payments.

I worked with the IRS and Treasury to expand options for those without broadband internet to access this information. After my push, the IRS announced this week the launch of a hotline that Americans can call instead. They now also allow congressional offices to input and track information on constituents’ behalves—a major win for Ohioans without internet access.

Even with these critical advancements, thousands of Ohioans live without broadband internet coverage at home. As we adapt to an increasingly online world, we should anticipate that many of the changes we’ve seen will carry over into our post-pandemic reality. It’s crucial now more than ever that broadband internet coverage expands to meet the needs of rural Ohioans, so they aren’t left behind.

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