Any programs for infrastructure improvements at any level — local, state or federal — should have broadband improvements in rural parts of the nation as a focus and a priority.

We all knew improved high-speed access was a clear gap for many. Then COVID-19 hit, exacerbating the problem and pushing it even more into the forefront.

The digital divide is only growing. The disparity between lightning-fast internet speeds and services is urban and larger communities as opposed to slower or even nonexistent options in rural areas — including pockets of our own Valley — is leaving many further behind.

Today, affordable, efficient and accessible internet access is not just critical to life in the 21st century, you could argue it is absolutely essential. It is a problem, state Sen. Gene Yaw said during a hearing last week of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, that affects all ages.

More people are working at home and need constant connectivity. Those working at home may also have students at home, studying virtually at the same time, pulling on the same broadband data at the same time.

Medicine is also tilting that way with more people avoiding in-person appointments due to COVID concerns and transportation challenges, spiking the number of hospital appointments that have shifted online.

In a meeting with representatives from CNHI’s Pennsylvania newsrooms late last month, David Lopatofsky, chief medical director of UPMC Susquehanna of UPMC Susquehanna said system-wide, UPMC was doing about 250 telemedicine appointments a day pre-pandemic. That number exploded to 10,000 a day last April and shows no signs of slowing down.

“COVID-19 actually brought to the forefront broadband and its importance,” Yaw, the chairman of the board for the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, said. “It’s not only telemedicine, it’s the ability of students to access programs in light of school closings.”

Infrastructure improvements are something we can all get behind, regardless of political affiliation, job title or personal values. During editorial board meetings last fall ahead of the November election, every candidate that met with our editorial board talked about the critical nature of improving access.

Access is vital to life in today’s wired world. We understand it won’t be cheap. That doesn’t mean not only making improving rural broadband a priority, but making it happen isn’t worth it.

NOTE: Opinions expressed in The Daily Item’s editorials are the consensus of the publisher, top newsroom executives and community members of the editorial board. Today’s was written by Managing Editor Bill Bowman.

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