Using Technology in a Time of COVID-19 (and beyond)

Table of Contents

I. The Digital Divide
II. What to Do If You Are Experiencing Poor Internet Performance
III. Free Wi-Fi Hotspots for Vermonters With Inadequate or No Home Internet
I. The Digital Divide
Sometimes it takes a present-day emergency like the COVID-19 crisis to get the attention of government officials and politicians about deep and long-standing societal problems. One such problem, which has existed since the introduction of home computers in the early 1980s, is the nationwide digital divide between haves and have-nots (rich and poor). This problem has only deepened in the internet age due to the significant deregulation of public utilities (also since the 1980s), which has allowed a few very large communications companies like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T to dominate the market, engage in near-monopolistic pricing and service practices, and largely ignore sparsely populated regions and low-income communities.
Here in Vermont, especially in the more rural areas, according to the Department of Public Service more than 20,000 addresses have no internet access and another nearly 50,000 addresses have internet speed that falls below the FCC's definition of broadband. While this has long been a source of frustration to Vermont businesses and individuals, the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the threat this lack of broadband poses to telehealth, distance learning for college students, homeschooling for K–12 students, remote working, government activity, and online offerings by local stores, not to mention limiting citizen access to a broad range of news, arts, entertainment, lifelong education, and even citizen participation in government.
The idea of closing the digital divide is beginning to get some traction in Congress, including with Vermont Congressman Peter Welch. Meanwhile, members of Congress are beginning to talk seriously about the need for a rural digitization act similar to the Rural Electrification Act passed during the Great Depression, which brought electricity to every corner of our state and rural areas in every state in the country.

Sources:
II. What to Do If You Are Experiencing Poor Internet Performance
It appears that as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, internet use is so high (with many working from home, college and K-12 students doing distance learning, and nearly everyone streaming movies), that there continues to be significant and frustrating performance deterioration of web-based applications, especially group meeting platforms like Zoom and services like Facebook, Gmail, Google Docs, and comparable Apple and Microsoft web applications.
Several weeks ago, we wrote to relevant Vermont government officials and agencies suggesting that government utilities regulators and the governor could put some pressure on internet service providers (ISPs) to increase bandwidth availability to all as a public service (without levying extra charges). The governor's response acknowledged that people might be experiencing problems with internet performance, but claimed that, according to the Vermont Department of Public Service, the cause of these problems was not a lack of bandwidth from ISPs, but rather competition for Wi-Fi bandwidth within homes & businesses.
Reports we had read about bandwidth issues in the more rural parts of the state (and throughout the country), and our own experience with broadband in the city of Montpelier, left us dubious about this claim. Recently, it appears that state officials are beginning to recognize that the related problems of inadequate broadband infrastructure and affordable broadband services in the state are real and have been so since well before the COVID-19 crisis.
Meanwhile, what can we each do to improve our home internet performance?
1. The Vermont Department of Public Service suggests that while you are participating in an important video conference, you should reduce bandwidth constraints in your household
  • Disable Wi-Fi on devices that don’t need to be used
  • Limit the number of simultaneous users on your home network
  • Stop others from streaming video content on YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, etc.
  • Turn off iCloud backups, Dropbox uploads/downloads, and any other background services that upload or download data to/from the cloud
2. Consult Tech Support From Your ISP about ways to improve internet performance, especially during the COVID-19 crisis with more people in your household needing to use it simultaneously
Before trying to get through to them by phone, you might want to consult their website’s tech support pages, for example, Improving WiFi Network Performance” from Comcast’s Xfinity.com/support.

Even if you don’t have Comcast, you may find this site useful.
3. Tech support articles:
4. Readers' suggestions
Readers are encouraged to share references and personal successes with improving home internet performance. Send suggestions to phkelman@gmail.com.
III. Free Wi-Fi Hotspots for Vermonters With Inadequate or No Home Internet
If you need to get online using a publicly available Wi-Fi hotspot, you can find it on the Vermont Department of Public Service Wi-Fi hotspot map

Additionally, Comcast/Xfinity claims that during the COVID crisis, their Wi-Fi hotspots across the country are available free to anyone who needs them—including non-Xfinity Internet subscribers. Visit this map of Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspots. If any reader who is not a Comcast subscriber tries to do this, we would love to hear from you whether or not you were able to do so and, if so what the procedure entailed. Email us: phkelman@gmail.com.

Personal Device Security Suggestions and Reminders from the Vermont Department of Public Service:
When using open networks (like public hotspots or Xfinity Wi-Fi networks), please remember to protect your sensitive information (such as banking or other personally identifying numbers). Please continue to be vigilant with your use of hotspots and public Wi-Fi networks, just as you would have before the arrival of the COVID-19 virus.  
The following links to several articles may help with your navigation and use of these networks.


This post was originally copyedited 5/10/20 by Sheryl Rapée-Adams, a professional copyeditor who is available to polish and shine your words to serve your goals and your readers. Click here to contact her for a quote. 

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