Smiling from ear to ear, Taylor Kutz set up her computer in her West Reading apartment building with a hot spot she rented for $40 a month from the Kutztown Area Community Library.

The 29-year-old children's librarian was all set for story time with the faces of 10 5-year-olds on her screen from many miles away in northern Berks County.

"My computer runs really slow in my apartment if I don't use a hot spot," Kutz said recently before the children appeared on her screen for a Zoom story time.

"I just love this," Kutz shared of being able to continue story time from her home. "Today, we talked about Earth Day. We read, 'Ruby's Bird.' The kids flap their wings."

Without the hot spot, there would be no story time, since the library is closed for gatherings due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The hot spot boosted her internet service for a Zoom story time with children from the Kutztown area.

"This is our new way of doing story time," she said. "We have no in-person story time at the libraries."

Kutz's reaction to the pandemic illustrates how COVID forced the world, including Berks County, to become more tech savvy.

It also brought to light the digital divide between those who have and those who do not have access to high-speed internet available on demand.

Berks County residents have been dealing with the pandemic by renting hot spots, using Wi-Fi outside libraries and school parking lots, and schools buying laptops for students and increasing internet speed and internet services for underserved communities.

The pandemic has also highlighted the fact that there are many dead zones with no broadband internet service in Berks.

Scott Major, chief information officer for the Berks County Intermediate Unit, is researching broadband access in Berks for a community broadband project, "Accelerating Broadband Access in Berks County: Closing the Digital Divide."

He is working with the internet providers to map out the problematic areas that lack internet connectivity in Berks. He is also looking at how to obtain subsidies for low-income families.

Major said there is no reliable information about the locations of dead zones and the status of the areas where there is limited access in Berks.

A report he drafted includes data provided in the 2019 census report:

  • 19.2% of Berks residents do not have internet access.
  • 16.4% do not have computers.
  • Of the households with internet access, 67.5% have access to broadband, leaving 32.5% without broadband access.

Major said the problem is not just lack of connectivity, but also lack of knowledge of how to get the service, use computers and affordability.

"If there is anything positive about COVID-19, it's that it forced us to open our eyes to the digital divide," Major said. "It's a divide between those who have high-speed internet and those who do not."

Congress has allocated $850 million for broadband to Pennsylvania in the American Rescue Package.

President Joe Biden is also proposing $100 billion to provide broadband to all Americans as part of his $2 trillion American Jobs Plan, and Pennsylvania would benefit.

"Even when infrastructure is available, broadband may be too expensive to be within reach," Seth Shuster, Biden's regional communication director said in a report, The Need for Action in Pennsylvania.

According to the report:

  • 5% of Pennsylvania residents do not have broadband.
  • 14% do not have an internet subscription.
  • 44% of Pennsylvanians live in areas where there is only one internet provider.

Across Berks

County commissioners Chairman Christian Y. Leinbach said COVID-19 has pushed people into using more advanced technology and now they don't want to go back.

"It's convenient, and it saves a lot of time," Leinbach said. "Broadband is the key to positive change, whether it's telework, teleeducation, or telemedicine. There are so many areas that are impacted. That's why the federal government placed an emphasis on broadband."

Leinbach said one of the roles he will play is heading a committee on how to allocate the funds the county is receiving for broadband.

The commissioner did not say how much the county and Berks municipalities will receive.

"It needs to be thought out very carefully," he said. "We have to work with the private sector and public education. We have to address the consumers and the business education sector. This has to be looked at broadly. The county needs to work with the municipalities.”

He said there is limited internet access in the rural, hilly areas of Berks, including Albany Township, the Oley Hills, and along Route 183 North.

The commissioner noted there are dead zones at the county's North Campus in Bern Township, where the county nursing home and prison are located.

To improve the access, he said, cell towers are necessary, which are costly. 

There is no easy answer, Leinbach noted.

Berks business and community leaders foresaw the magnitude of the problems of not having broadband early on in the pandemic.

In May 2020, the Wyomissing Foundation launched the Closing Digital Divide project. 

A dozen community members meet regularly to come up with a plan to better connect all the schools and the community to broadband.

Dr. Anna Weitz, retired Reading Area Community College president, is chairwoman of the group.

Major, who is heading the research for the community broadband project, said Berks is moving in the right direction.

"We are hoping that broadband access will be just like having a phone line and electricity," he said.

John P. Weidenhammer, president of Weidenhammer Systems Corp., a Wyomissing-based technology company, and a member of the Closing the Digital Divide group, said the group understands the challenges of not having access to broadband.

"It's an issue for everyone," he said. "Not having access is a problem for people trying to register for vaccines. It's a problem for people living in some rural areas. There are dead zones throughout the entire county."

Weidenhammer said that it could cost more than $10,000 to install a connection for people who live in isolated areas.

Weidenhammer hopes to see changes come within the next six months.

School districts

School districts were unexpectedly forced to quickly adapt to change as the students no longer were in traditional classrooms full time.

Reading School District, the fourth largest in the state with 17,000 students and 2,000 employees, went all out to ensure students were equipped with laptops and Wi-Fi when schools went to all virtual classes.

About 93.3% of the students are economically disadvantaged, according to the district’s COVID management digital divide presentation.

Dr. Yamil Sanchez, assistant superintendent and member of the Wyomissing Foundation broadband study group, headed the district initiative to provide technology for all students.

The district distributed 16,500 Chromebook laptops, including the purchase of 7,000 new ones, to ensure all students had access to a computer.

"We wanted to ease the process for the families," Sanchez said. "There is not a one-size-fits-all solution. We were in need of an immediate solution. We learned day by day what works. We have the infrastructure in place to provide broadband.”

The district expanded the footprint of Wi-Fi in 14 school buildings so students could work on their computers in areas outside the buildings.

They developed a dual language parent video series to help parents participate in their children’s learning.

The district also provided free internet service to 370 families through Comcast's Internet Essentials Program, which charges $9.95 per month per family.

The district is partnering with T-Mobile to obtain hotspots for homeless students who move from house to house.

Another option is for students to work in small groups in public buildings.

The district has partnered with United Way of Berks County and Comcast to participate in a program called Lift Zones, in which digital service is available at outside locations for students, including local churches and nonprofit organizations, including the LGBTQ Center of Greater Reading, Salvation Army of Reading, and YMCA of Reading and Berks County.

In the Kutztown School District, the students were provided with computers to use at home.

Some families did not have strong connectivity to the internet, said Dr. Edward Myers, director of educational technology.

Myers said T-Mobile partnered with the district to provide hot spots free of charge for about 35 families that do not have internet access.

He said the district also upgraded its capacity.

"This is truly an infrastructure issue," Myers said. "We have some families that live in areas with little connectivity."

Myers expressed appreciation to the Kutztown Community Library and the Kutztown Education Foundation for working with the district on the transition to virtual learning.

The Kutztown Community Library also has 80 hot spots for rent for $40 a month.

Janet Yost, Kutztown library director, said there are so many families renting the hot spots because they lack access to internet connectivity.

Sometimes locals will sit in the library parking lot to connect to Wi-Fi.

Kutz, the children's librarian, said she was thankful for the hot spots so she could continue story time from her apartment in West Reading.

"My computer runs really slow in my apartment if I don't use a hot spot," Kutz said. "When I use the hot spot, I can do story time from home. I am very happy. It gives me a good sense of security."

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