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As the new coronavirus spreads, it has exposed a variety of societal vulnerabilities. For example, giant cities have seen how their long-touted lifestyle — packing more and more people into less and less space — can endanger public health.
Those in more rural settings shouldn’t feel smug, however. Those sprinkled among the countryside of Kansas are in some ways even less prepared than those in urban areas. The lack of hospital facilities and emergency services is the first gap that comes to mind.
But there’s another shortcoming, one that has been highlighted for years and will only make this experience more difficult. That’s the lack of broadband internet access.
How might that make this current crisis worse? There are several ways. First, with schools across the state closed, educators are moving their classes online. Students in rural areas were already disadvantaged without broadband, but if education itself is primarily dispensed online, where does this leave them?
That’s not all. Routine doctor’s visits are shifting toward telemedicine, which is perhaps ill-named. It’s more accurately described as video-conferencing medicine. Again, without the support of broadband internet, online meetings with your doctor will be all but impossible for rural folks. And with rural hospitals dwindling, that access was already precarious to begin with.
Finally, this is a rapidly changing, historical event. Yet because of social distancing requirements, we are largely experiencing it alone. Social media and other online tools can bring us closer together, if only virtually. Again, lack of broadband makes that challenging.
So what’s the answer? The Legislature has repeatedly talked about this problem, but we haven’t seen decisive action yet.
Internet providers, which are interested in making a profit, don’t see a sustainable business in the miles upon miles of fields and tiny towns of rural Kansas.
Once this crisis passes — and it will pass — lawmakers will need to solve this problem once and for all. Do providers need incentives? Will some sort of public-private partnership need to be created? Surely the problem has solutions, if all sides work toward them in good faith.
What’s unacceptable is seeing rural areas once again being left behind during a time of great social change. These communities, and these residents, are no more or less Kansans than the rest of us.
They deserve access to the same utility services — and that’s what broadband internet is, make no mistake — as the rest of us.