ABC57 Investigates: The Digital Divide, efforts for universal broadband

SOUTH BEND, Ind. —- A lack of internet access in rural areas has been put into the spotlight thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Now politicians across the country are working to bridge that divide, including some here locally.

Having internet access is a luxury and the reality is there are hundreds of people in our area who simply can’t do those basic things in their homes.  

Ollyce Prinker, who lives on the Southside of South Bend is one of them. 

“I don’t have a connection. I have nothing. No calls no nothing. I don’t know what else to do,” Prinker said. 

Prinker is a mom of two. It’s a 5-minute drive to the nearest Walmart. Her neighbors, half a mile up the street, get an internet connection but she doesn’t.

“We live off of our phones if we need to use the internet.”

Prinker is one of 141 million Americans living in the dark, offline. It’s been four years since she moved into her home and for four years she’s been living without any wifi.

“It’s been a very frustrating battle. I’ve tried big providers, Comcast, ATT, Spectrum, Frontier, down to small community ones like Four Way. This is you know 2016 at the time. How is there no internet? During a pandemic, when you can’t go to a regular store, what if your kids need clothes? You’re buying them online. A lot of stuff suddenly becomes online. And if you don’t have a reliable connection, it takes longer, or you just miss out. You just make due.”

The coronavirus has highlighted America’s need for universal broadband, since millions of Americans are stuck working, learning, shopping, and more, all from home.

ABC57 spoke exclusively with Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr about the nationwide efforts to bridge the gap. Carr told us officials are working to advance wireless networks to meet the increased demand brought on by the pandemic.

“COVID-19 was a surprise stress test of our internet ecosystem,” Carr said. “It highlighted the importance of continuing to close this digital divide.”

The efforts include awarding $16 billion over the next 10 years for broadband networks in underserved residential and business areas and accelerating the deployment of 5G.

“The gap between Americans who have high-speed internet and those that don’t are really being laid bare right now in terms of working remotely, educating your kids remotely, accessing Telehealth, health care technologies. We’ve made a lot of progress over the last few years, we’ve actually closed the digital divide by 30 percent but we’re not raising the mission accomplished flag just yet,” Carr said.

That flag actually won’t be raised until everyone from coast-to-coast has equal access to high-speed internet.

So for people like Prinker, struggling for years at home without internet connectivity, the efforts are promising but could be too little, too late.

“it would be nice if it was done years ago just as a standard,” Prinker said. 

Local lawmakers like Indiana Senator Todd Young and Michigan Congressman Fred Upton have also been a part of the push for equal access to high-speed internet.

“We’ve known for a long time, that high-speed internet is really critical to our way of life,” Upton said. 

Upton, who represents Michigan’s 6th district, introduced the “Rural Broadband Acceleration Act” in May. He also helped secure millions of dollars in funding for unserved and underserved rural communities across Southwest Michigan.

“The big companies they’re looking for the high concentration of folks. The folks at the end of the line, the subdivisions at the end, certainly in rural communities, they’re forgotten all together. We’re tired of excuses. It’s been 10 years of excuses. This legislation is going to get in done and we’re actually going to see the construction start this fall,” Upton saidl. 

The coronavirus has created a sense of urgency around equal access to broadband internet.

So if you’re struggling to get a signal where you live, remember this: Fair access is the goal. 

“[Fair] is the goal, that’s my goal. If you’re living in downtown Manhattan, you should have the same high-speed internet connection as you do in Manhattan, Virginia or any other community across the country. So that’s our goal, is to make sure that where you live doesn’t determine the digital divide you experience,” Carr said. 

With newly introduced legislation in both Indiana and Michigan, it’s likely more rural areas will see some positive changes over the next few years.

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