By Jordan Wehe
It’s 2020. The Internet should be reliable and powerful regardless of where you live, but that’s not the case for millions of Americans. In many ways, Coloradans represent a microcosm of the demographic diversity across the country, with groups from farmers to business owners, students and young professionals. This makes the job of a regional service provider like us challenging.
And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic threw the country into disarray.
In the rural Colorado communities we serve, many of our customers were content with a stable connection that enabled them to browse, stream their favorite shows and occasionally check work email from home. That quickly changed eight months ago when some broadband luxuries became necessities.
This story isn’t uniquely ours, though, as rural providers around the country that work with communities—historical or not—face similar challenges.
Since our founding in 1990, Jade Communications has worked with mayors of some of America’s oldest towns to ensure that their history remained intact, but that their citizens weren’t left behind by obsolete technology. What we see and hear from bigger internet providers is a one-size-fits-all approach. That would never work in San Luis, Colorado, the oldest town in the state, or most rural communities we serve.
We have built an understanding of the 30 communities we serve in Southern Colorado and quickly realized that while the services we provided were far better than average, residents weren’t used to working and learning remotely.
Instead of catastrophe, we found a solution.
At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March, we offered all subscribers: free installation, a complimentary speed tier upgrade, and a premium Wi-Fi upgrade—all at no cost for 60 days. After the complimentary period, 62 percent of those who had upgraded a service tier opted to keep it.
Pre-pandemic internet speeds were no longer fruitful for our communities. Most people weren’t used to their kids being at home or running their business from their kitchen tables. Our doubling (and, in some instances, tripling) of bandwidth was critical to ensuring people could comfortably work and learn from home. We also offered them the ability to increase/decrease speeds to certain devices (or limit access for apps like TikTok on children’s devices during certain times of day) via our app. Following our conversations with seven different school districts across the San Luis Valley, we’ve connected more than 100 students and are still working with these districts to get even more of their most remote students connected.
Together with our sister company, Blanca Networks, we signed the Federal Communications Commission’s “Keep Americans Connected Pledge.” We are the first and only providers in the San Luis Valley to sign the pledge. Along with the other 390 U.S.-based broadband companies and associations that have signed it, we promised to continue to work with customers disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
But there’s more work to do. While we’re proud our customers rarely face issues we can’t support, much of Colorado is playing catch up. According to local election results in 2018, access to high-speed internet was one of the top list of issues rural voters cared about. This isn’t a sentiment unique to Colorado. According to a Pew Research Center survey, about six in ten Americans in rural communities (58 percent) believe access to high speed internet is a problem in their area. While we work in various parts of Southern Colorado, the majority of the 30 communities are rural towns.
We’re at a turning point for Colorado and other states in the U.S. where we see an increase in urban flight. Professionals are moving from expensive cities like Denver to rural mountain towns to save money and enjoy the recreational benefits. But many of these new homes aren’t well-equipped for professional needs. While the views might be nice, the technology and broadband options are virtually archaic. The same broadband speeds in urban cities must be available to those in rural towns in order to support this new lifestyle and the ability to work from anywhere.
So how does Colorado find its solution? Is something like fiber the answer? Yes, but it is only part of the equation. Though many may claim that technology behind broadband will save us, the digital divide won’t be solved by technology alone. Even prior to the pandemic, we built our business on relationships first, our solutions enabled by technology, education and understanding what leaders in rural communities were looking for.
We believe that technology will enable the solution, but it will take people understanding and learning how, in this case, broadband, can support the economic vitality of their towns, cities and people. We’ve always been a proponent of fiber broadband as a possible end to the digital divide, but it won’t happen overnight or without a thorough understanding of the communities we serve.
The pandemic has impacted our lives in innumerable ways, but it has become clear is that connection matters now more than ever before. Rural and regional CSPs like Jade are putting in the work today so that the future can be a bit brighter—and more connected—as our world changes. Without proper and reliable internet, millions of Americans have suffered from feeling disconnected and left behind. It’s always been a problem. It has just taken a pandemic for Americans to wake up and start looking for a solution.
Jordan Wehe is the Director of Marketing at locally-owned Colorado-based broadband provider Jade Communications