By Ted Shockley
When will high-speed Internet be available at every home, business and non-profit on the Eastern Shore of Virginia?
After a virtual forum held Thursday night, the answer still isn’t altogether clear.
One public authority and two private companies are trying to get everyone on the Eastern Shore functional Internet and they have cut subscription prices.
But as about 100 people on a Zoom call learned, connectivity isn’t quick or cheap. And with every passing day, the dire impact on the Eastern Shore increases.
The student performance disparities caused by COVID-19 are “pretty significant” between those homes with reliable Internet and those without the service, Diane Powers, information technology director for Northampton County Public Schools, told the group.
She called them the “haves,” and the “have nots,” and said “the have nots are without the educational resources that they’ve needed.”
Jack Bowden, Accomack County Public Schools’ IT coordinator, agreed.
“Once you leave the school, and you go home, they don’t have access to the Internet, and it’s a challenge,” he said.
But there was positive news during the meeting, held by a group called Virginia Organizing.
The publicly owned Eastern Shore Broadband Authority, and private companies Neubeam and Spectrum, continue to expand offerings.
Spectrum will have its services in front of 18,000 households and businesses on the Eastern Shore by March 16, said Eric Collins, its director of government affairs.
Neubeam has more than 50 service areas and covers over 60 miles on the Eastern Shore, a representative said.
The Broadband Authority is now offering a $100 per month Internet subscription for small businesses, churches and nonprofits.
Authority Director Robert Bridgham said the entity wasn’t just looking to expand in the “most lucrative areas,” but was targeting expansion to areas of density where there weren’t other Internet options.
But the organizations work independently, and no officials in the meeting knew of any coordinated plan to deliver broadband.
Said Delegate Robert Bloxom Jr., “It looks to me like they are all going to the same area. The people in the outlying areas are going to be stuck.”
There was no concrete information on when widespread accessibility would be available.
But there was information on the problems the Eastern Shore is having without widespread availability.
Robie Marsh, executive director of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said the current condition hurts businesses, students and business-recruitment efforts.
Still, he said there was “no silver bullet out there short of a blank check.”