DES MOINES, Iowa — The pandemic has taken technology from a land of luxury to a necessity.
“We saw a big surge in downstream and upstream traffic last spring,” said Phyllis Peters, senior director of communications at Mediacom. While they couldn’t have planned for a pandemic, they did plan for an increase in network usage back in 2018. “Our network architecture is built to be 18 months ahead of capacity,” Peters said.
When schools went online in the spring, the work for technicians wasn’t over. Planning for the worst needed to continue, but because of the uncertainties that the coronavirus presented, staying one step ahead turned into a sprint. Peters said, “Instead of spreading that over six months, they rapidly completed all of this work in six weeks to get us again 18 months ahead of the rapid rise in demand.”
Increasing bandwidth was vital. In November, school districts across Iowa have begun switching from their hybrid models to remote-only learning. “A total of 43 districts and non-public schools are operating with a waiver, representing 9.6% of Iowa schools,” said Ann Lebo, director of the Iowa Department of Education.
It may be just less than 10% of Iowa school districts, but four of the five largest in the state (Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Iowa City) were granted districtwide remote learning waivers in the same week between Nov. 10-13. “We monitor 24/7 what’s the utilization, what’s the traffic pattern,” added Peters.
Those districts carry the largest numbers of low income families who struggle with money for technology, but Mediacom’s Connect2Compete program helps close a digital divide. First, with the Des Moines Public School District, and then over a dozen others followed suit for a total of over 4,500 families. “Many families in towns small and large qualify. They just have to have one son or daughter eligible for the free or reduced lunch program at school,” Peters said.
For around $10 a month, a family is assured their kid will continue learning and keeping pace with their peers. “It’s not fair to families that can’t afford it and to have their sons and daughters left behind,” said Peters.
Never hoping for another pandemic in the future, Peters says when normal life returns, history suggests usage rates will not. “Once people start using more internet connected devices in their homes, they are not going to go back to just using one or two.”
The planning ahead continues. Peters said, “It is just essential and it is not a matter of the internet there for entertainment, it’s our everyday lives in every single way.”
Families do not have to partner with a school district to qualify for Connect2Compete. It is available year-round to anyone who qualifies.