‘There will be a lasting impact’: How the pandemic magnified Maine’s digital divide

The success of remote learning greatly depends on a family’s access to the internet. It's estimated that tens of thousands of households lack internet access.

News Center Maine
Posted 2020-11-18

“My only concern is if we do go red [status] and we’re fully remote, can my internet keep up with all the computers working around the clock?” asked Amy McGee of West Gardiner—a mom of five kids, all of whom are learning from home.

“I had some trouble with the hot spot at home trying to work,” said Kim Slawson of Owls Head, a father of four. “I kept having to reconnect to it. Finally, I just had to give up and had to go to a restaurant and connect to their WiFi to get some work done and [my daughter] wasn’t able to do a Zoom meeting that she had.”=

“I don’t ever lose internet here, so I don’t ever have internet issues,” said Ashley Lunt of Windsor and a mom of two kids.

How the remote learning experience is going in Maine, as it pertains to the internet, depends on who you ask and where they live.

“Broadband is what I refer to as a street by street battle,” said Peggy Schaffer, executive director of ConnectME Authority. “Because it really depends on where you live, what your connectivity is like.”

Eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic it is clear that broadband is now a basic need for people working from home and kids learning remotely.

Tens of thousands of Maine households have limited or no access to high-speed internet. And that’s an underestimate, according to ConnectME Authority, which has been working for years to eliminate broadband barriers while supporting public-private partnerships to increase access to high-speed internet.

“What we know is 85,000 is probably the floor of who is not connected and not the ceiling,” said Schaffer.

Why is the number not accurate? Schaffer explained there are some caveats.

“What the FCC requires is that if you serve, or could reasonably serve an area in a census block, one house in a census block the entire census block is considered served. So what that means is there are many areas of the state where a home or a location in a census block could reasonably be served but is not, that entire census block is served. So we know that these numbers are understated, it’s understated nationwide,” she said.

In March, when the pandemic first hit, Maine families found themselves suddenly at home, with little to no tools to learn remotely.

By mid-May, the state secured internet access for tens of thousands of students who reported facing connectivity issues by utilizing funds from the CARES Act and the GEER Fund, as well as philanthropic donations. The Department of Education acquired more than 14,000 service contracts through three different service providers, nearly all were for WiFi-enabled Samsung Galaxy Tablets to be used for school work and as hotspots. Through one of the service providers, Maine education officials ordered MiFi, to work like a mobile WiFi hotspot for some who need that. For those who needed a device, they secured and distributed more than 7,400 Chromebooks.

That was months ago, and still, internet connectivity remains an issue in Maine.

“What people had sort of lived with is OK broadband. And since the beginning of this crisis it’s clear it’s not adequate anymore,” Schaffer said. “It has become a critical element of how people survive.”