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Editorial: Internet more important than ever during COVID-19

The degree to which the public is relying on the internet now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, shows more clearly than ever there’s a strong argument for treating it like a public utility.

Just like water, electricity and gas, it’s difficult to impossible for many folks to keep life and business as close to normal as possible without the internet.

Rowan-Salisbury Schools students can’t do their work remotely without access to the internet. That’s why the school system distributed hotspots and local churches, parks and libraries have offered up their parking lots as spaces where students can download assignments to complete at home and return once work is complete.

Businesses are relying on the internet now more than ever to do business, asking employees to work at home and conducting meetings via video conferencing software like Zoom or old school conference calls. Melanie Denton Dombrowski, who owns Salisbury Eyewear and Eyecare, is among those adapting to this brave new world. She’s keeping in touch with clients by posting information online, making YouTube videos about the eye and COVID-19 and diving head first into tele-health and virtual doctors visits. She’s following national and state guidelines focusing on urgent and emergent conditions for in-office visits.

It’s unrealistic to ask “how could she do that without the internet?” But it’s important to recognize that businesses like hers across the country are doing their best to stay operational with limited ability to see people in person by taking advantage of the internet.

Government meetings, too, have been forced to move online in most cases. And while doing that adds an additional barrier for the public to comment, it allows the business of local government to continue.

Fully treating the internet as a public utility has implications far beyond the borders of Rowan County, but there are practical lessons to learn here from the heavy reliance on the internet.

Most importantly and before arriving at cost considerations, everyone should be able to obtain access to the internet in the county. That means government should incentivize internet providers to extend services to rural areas and improve speeds where they’re currently slow, including data speeds of wireless carriers.

In cases where there’s a monopoly — one option for internet service — the government shouldn’t stand in the way of competition, whether that comes from a municipal fiber-optic network or another private provider coming into town. Internet service is faster and more affordable in Salisbury because of the creation of Fibrant, the city of Salisbury’s fiber-optic network that it now leases to Hotwire. The company then named Time Warner Cable lobbied for legislation that limited Fibrant’s expansion when it would have better served the public if Salisbury had been able to bring Fibrant lines to developments just outside of the city limits.

This moment is teaching us something about the increasing importance of the internet in our lives. It’s time people in elected and appointed office take steps to ensure more people have reliable access to it.

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