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Barb Girtman

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Work, health care, school — all depend on it

Uneven access to the internet has been an issue for some time, especially in rural areas like the farthest regions of Northwest Volusia.

The problem has become particularly persistent during the pandemic, when people have been dependent more than ever on a reliable internet connection for everything from working from home and conducting business online to virtual meetings, telehealth appointments and distance learning.

Wi-Fi or hot spots — Volusia County libraries have 400 of them available for public use — are OK. But they don’t provide the quality, speed, reliability and data-transmission capabilities needed for things like videoconferencing. For that, you must have broadband service.

Unfortunately, broadband isn’t available everywhere, creating a digital divide between the haves and the have-nots.

The good news is that the county is looking at possible solutions for bridging the divide.

Under normal circumstances, this might not even be an issue for government to tackle. But, this is just one more way that COVID-19 has changed just about everything.

The county has received the first $53.7 million installment of the new COVID relief funds provided by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. And according to the guidelines established by the federal government, one of the allowable uses of the money is to make necessary investments in broadband infrastructure.

County staff and the County Council have already begun taking a preliminary look at what it would take to extend the broadband infrastructure that’s needed to bring high-speed internet access to the underserved areas of Pierson and Seville. The targeted area would impact more than 1,600 homes.

Initial discussions are underway with Charter Spectrum to develop a cost analysis and the timing for installing the cable. Other cable providers, as well as area cities and the school district, will be brought into the discussions, as well.

There are lots of details that would need to be worked through in order for this project to move forward. One of the key questions is exactly what the county’s role would be if it agreed to invest some of its federal coronavirus-relief funds into expanding the broadband infrastructure in Northwest Volusia. The county has created an employee committee comprising representatives of several divisions, such as information technology, business services, community services and public works, and the committee is studying the rural broadband issue.

Right now, all of this is very much in the exploratory or “what if” phase. But the idea is to imagine the possible — imagine how a project might be structured to provide access to a high-speed internet connection for rural residents, many of whom need help overcoming the impacts of the pandemic.

Can you imagine that?

— Girtman, who lives in DeLand, represents District 1 on the Volusia County Council.


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