As with so many public facilities, the COVID-19 pandemic has closed the Marion Public Library to the public. But Library Director Hollie Trenary told our editorial board this past week that folks are still showing up. One big reason is they need access to the internet.
So the library and other public facilities in Marion have boosted their Wi-Fi signals, hoping to provide access outside the facilities. It’s now common to see cars parked in the library’s parking lot occupied by people using the wireless network.
Online access has long been vital for many reasons, but rarely has constant, dependable access been as critically important as it is now.
Americans are being told constantly to go to websites for the latest coronavirus information. Government officials are holding daily briefings streamed live online. Social media provides important connections to family, friends and co-workers. Local schools closed by the pandemic are attempting to make educational materials available to students. Unemployed residents need access to seek assistance and new jobs. Ordering groceries and other supplies online has become a social distancing strategy.
But too many lack dependable access at home, or the equipment needed to take advantage of access, a little discussed reality being underscored in a time of crisis.
Marion’s signal-boosting is welcome, as is free Wi-Fi provided by ImON in downtown Cedar Rapids, Newbo, at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena and in Hiawatha parks. Free Wi-Fi is available in dozens of other public places throughout the metro.
With so many public facilities and businesses closed, free Wi-Fi coverage isn’t enough. When so many are sheltering at home, a lack of access among low-income and elderly residents is a real issue.
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We offer a lot of words on these pages promoting the importance of rural broadband access. And it is very important. But so is access for Iowans who face other barriers to getting online.
Fast, reliable internet access is sold often as an economic development tool. But as the pandemic shows, it’s also critical to survival in an emergency. As lawmakers consider efforts to boost broadband, serving underserved, vulnerable Iowans must be part of the package. It’s a life and death issue.
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