The Editorial Board: Digital Learning Lab helps, but ErieNET is still the answer | Editorial

News Editorial Board

A homestay program in Buffalo is helping bridge the digital divide that leaves many residents without high-speed internet access at home. It is a useful addition to the essential work of expanding access to a service that is an integral part of modern life. But it is also a reminder.

The AT&T Digital Learning Lab at 230 Moselle St. offers 30 computers, laptops, tablets, and even a 3D printer for students and their families. AT&T is offering a free digital learning program as part of the project, undertaken with the Buffalo Urban League and Dreamerscorp Inc.

But as useful as it is, it is also a sign of constant challenge. While high-speed Internet access isn’t as urgent as infrastructure such as electrical service, it’s not that far behind. Those who don’t suffer from a huge disadvantage in leading full, productive and healthy lives.

Here’s how Thomas Beauford Jr., president and CEO of the Buffalo Urban League, put it: “Digital literacy and high-speed Internet access are no longer a luxury; it should be seen as an essential access point for every community. It is now a matter of social justice, and beyond that, it is a matter of 21st century civil rights.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has underscored this fact. Families without high-speed internet had little chance of scheduling a vaccination in the early part of last year or shopping safely. Children who did not have one had more difficulty following their school work.

Broadband Internet is the information highway. If you don’t have an on-ramp – pandemic or not – finding a job becomes more difficult. Finding health information is complicated, as is making appointments for a variety of services. Someone who does not develop the skills to simply browse the Internet will have limited prospects.

That’s why efforts like this, however helpful, should be seen as palliatives. The same goes for the Buffalo Public Schools Hotspot Program or Spectrum’s Temporary Wi-Fi Project, based on a $500,000 donation from the Buffalo Bills Social Justice Fund. These generous efforts are making a difference in how masks prevent Covid-19: they help to cope, but they do not solve the underlying problem.

This is one of the reasons the ErieNET program is so important to Buffalo and rural Erie County. The effort to extend high-speed internet to underserved areas, pushed by County Executive Mark Poloncarz, represents an effort to address the problem.

The $29 million effort is well underway, with significant funding coming from the federal government’s Covid-19 stimulus assistance. It aims to extend high-speed internet service to areas that don’t have it, by laying some 400 miles of fiber optic cable, with internet service providers laying out ‘last mile’ service connections to homes.

It’s a significant development that major vendors, including Spectrum, have so far avoided, although smaller vendors have shown interest. It may not completely solve the challenge of bringing underserved areas into the information age, but it represents the best effort yet.

With the appreciation of all other companies aiming to provide a service, this is the one that is most likely to make a profound difference.

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