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As more work from home in the COVID-19 pandemic, a Utah lawmaker wants to expand internet access

Posted at 3:34 PM, Mar 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-25 23:46:24-04

SALT LAKE CITY — As more and more Utahns are forced to work from home to stop the spread of coronavirus, a state legislator is hoping to expand internet access.

Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, proposed a bill on statewide internet access in the final weeks of the 2020 legislative session. It didn't get very far.

But now that Utah businesses are forced to experiment with telework and classrooms have moved online as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rep. Dailey-Provost's bill may see new attention.

"This experience is really demonstrating where some of the gaping holes in access are right now," she said in an interview over Skype with FOX 13.

Businesses have been forced to re-think how they work and rely increasingly on the internet. Rod Parker, the president of Snow Christensen & Martineau, one of Utah's largest law firms, said they made a decision to require all employees to work from home at the beginning of March as COVID-19 was ramping up. The firm asked its IT staff if it was even possible.

"The day that we did it was the day before the earthquake, actually. Fortuitously!" Parker said in a video interview. "It seemed pretty obvious this needed to be done."

Since then, lawyers, paralegals and staffers work remotely. Parker said the adjustment has been different for many.

"All of our lawyers are used to it at some level. Our staff, of course, it was a completely different thing," he said.

Parker said they have been fortunate that most of the firm has access to broadband. Amid the pandemic, many telecom companies have pivoted to expand access. Comcast, for example, said it has expanded WiFi hotspots and paused data plans.

House Bill 385 would have created an office in state government to push for expanded internet access no matter where people live or their income level. It would work with telecom companies to help make it happen.

"There are still a lot of marginalized communities in our state and in our country who simply don’t have access to the internet," Rep. Dailey-Provost said.

Government meetings are streamed live. Classes are now taught online. Health care is accessed online more and more as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rep. Dailey-Provost said the internet is increasingly more of a utility.

"We’ve already enabled an economy and a society that is dependent on the internet and the internet should no longer be viewed as a luxury item," she told FOX 13.

Now, the bill is queued up for study over the interim. Rep. Dailey-Provost said she plans to bring it back in the 2021 legislative session.

"Given what we’re going through now with as much social distancing and trying to get people to work from home and really discovering that we don’t have a good grasp of what essentials services are," she said. "That barrier of having internet access limits some people’s ability to work from home."