Poor internet access to rural areas — either an outright lack or substandard service — is not a new problem, but it’s one that’s been made glaringly obvious now that people need reliable daily information in the era of COVID-19.
It’s not just rural areas, either — anyone who lacks reliable internet, even by cell phone, is at a major disadvantage when it comes to getting information on services from government agencies and nonprofits.
That’s why local officials are now suggesting that people call 211 for information on local services, whether through government agencies or nonprofits. Cortland Mayor Brian Tobin has publically touted 211, and nonprofits are doing the same.
The reason is not only that 211 provides information for those who lack internet access, said Nicole Roulstin, the call center manager for Tompkins and Cortland counties.
It’s also because the 211 employees can offer additional suggestions or information.
The call center for both counties is located in Ithaca and staffed by two to five people weekdays, normally from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. But these are not normal times, and the center has been staying open longer — until about 6 — for the past two weeks, Roulstin said.
Two weeks ago, the call volume increased so substantially a data entry employee was hired to help with the influx of information, she said. The local 211 center keeps tabs on about 200 nonprofits and government agencies to provide accurate information to callers. But because of COVID-19, that information keeps changing – such as different phone numbers and hours of operation. Food pantries especially have changed how they operate in recent weeks.
“Those changes are coming in fast and furious right now,” Roulstin said. “It’s been much busier than normal.”
The center normally updates its databases two ways, Roulstin said: through an automated system that includes the usual list of 200 or so different groups; and through calls to specific groups for updates.
That system has been thrown a little out of whack by the recent coronavirus crisis, but, again, this is where the additional employee helps out.
Rachel Anderson, who lives in an internet dead zone in McGraw, has concerns that those without reliable internet access are at a disadvantage when it comes to getting information on public services, even though these same people are often the ones most in need of this information.
She used to rely on her local library to access the internet. “But with the libraries closed, we are now completely shut off from the internet,” Anderson said.
She is increasingly relying on the print version of the Cortland Standard because it contains updates on these public services.
Anderson, however, was concerned about the reliability of 211 after calling the service in late January or early February and, she said, being told McGraw was not in Cortland County.
Roulstin said that whatever mistake that occurred when Anderson called 211 has been fixed. Calls outside of normal hours are routed to a call center in Rochester, and Roulstin said an employee there apparently misspelled McGraw when searching for services.
Yet 211 does not capture every bit of information that might be of use to those looking for community services.
Anderson points out that information posted by businesses or individuals does not always get picked up by 211, which Roulstin confirmed.
However, some of this information is available through 211. It just depends on what it is, if it is a unique service.
For instance, 211 often features information on grant programs administered by Thoma Development Consultants, a private company. But these programs, she said, are not handled by anyone else in Cortland County, so they are part of the roster of services that 211 suggests.
Joanne Brown-Garringer, executive director of Cortland Chenango Rural Services in Cincinnatus, said lack of reliable internet in rural areas is no secret to her or the people that she works with.
“We do have connection problems with the internet quite often. Either people don’t have computers or internet, or, if they do have the access, it is not the best,” she said.
She and others are being told to call 211 for information on local services, and the local 211 center seems to be handling this task well, she said.
But the current crisis points to a gap in rural infrastructure regarding cell tower coverage and wired high speed internet access, she said — a point with which Lindy Glennon, executive director of CAPCO in Cortland, concurs.
“That is a major concern. The reality is this is nothing new to those of us who live in a rural community,” Glennon said.