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America’s internet wasn’t prepared for online school

Distance learning shows how badly rural America needs broadband

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Barn in Falls Village, Connecticut
Falls Village, Connecticut, is part of the Region One school district. It has a population of 538.
Photo by Carol M. Highsmith / Buyenlarge/Getty Images

It’s not uncommon for households in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, to lose internet for a full day. The last time it happened, back in the spring, Christina Rothermel-Branham connected herself (a professor at Northeastern State University, teaching online) and her son (a kindergartener at Heritage Elementary, learning online) to the hotspot on her phone. Luckily, nobody had a Zoom call scheduled that day; worksheets and YouTube videos proceeded as planned.

Rothermel-Branham’s son is now in first grade. He has multiple Zoom sessions per day and takes online classes through Outschool. She doesn’t know what they’ll do the next time their house loses service. She hopes her phone’s hotspot will be able to handle both of their video calls at once — but she’s worried that it won’t. 

Rothermel-Branham’s son is one of the millions of students around the US who are currently taking some (or all) of their classes remotely. That’s been the status quo since the spring for many districts, which moved instruction online to limit the spread of COVID-19. The first few weeks of school were difficult for rural families. Teachers struggled to reach disconnected students, using phone calls, social media, and text messages. But they only had to finish the spring, and many hoped that by the start of the new school year in the fall, things would be better. 

Rural districts are still scrambling

Almost seven months later, rural districts around the country are still scrambling to accommodate all of their pupils. It’s become clear to teachers, administrators, and community members that the digital divide is too big for schools to bridge on their own. The infrastructure needed to teach rural students remotely would require systemic change — it would require government assistance. Months into the pandemic, educators say they still don’t have what they need. 

Part of the problem for rural areas is income. Just over half of households with annual incomes under $30,000 use broadband internet, according to Pew Research Center. Poverty rates are much higher in non-metro areas than they are in metro areas across the US — and the largest gap, by far, is in the South. And the COVID-19 pandemic, which demolished 113 straight months of job growth, has overwhelmingly impacted low-income minority communities. 

The average cost of internet service is $60 per month in the US. And in areas where cable isn’t available, some families need to turn to satellite service, which is even more expensive at $100 per month on average. That’s a cost not all families can bear, especially during a recession. 

But high-speed internet isn’t an option even for some households that could afford the service. The Federal Communication Commission’s broadband standard is a download speed of at least 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 megabits per second (colloquially, “25/3”). Those speeds, considered to be the minimum needed for a single 4K Netflix stream, are unheard of in some rural areas. 

“I was running on the highest speed, but we were having a lag because every school district was on.”

Just two-thirds of rural Americans have broadband access, per Pew, compared to three-quarters of urban residents and 79 percent of suburban residents. But it’s hard to measure how widespread the service actually is because the FCC’s broadband maps are notoriously terrible and classify a ZIP code as “served” if just one home has access. 

Laying cables in areas where very few paying customers live isn’t an attractive investment option for providers. This is compounded by nature — hills, lakes, rivers, forests, and other terrain can both interfere with wireless signals and present challenges to laying infrastructure in the first place. And these regions can be hard hit by power outages. Trees and leaves interfere with power lines during adverse weather, and since crews prioritize restoring power to the largest groups of customers, areas where the fewest people live are often the last to get service back.

Deloitte estimated in 2017 that modernizing rural broadband across the country would require a $130–$150 billion infrastructure investment. Democrats proposed a $1 billion investment earlier this year, but it did not pass.

Even areas where internet is widespread don’t all have the bandwidth to accommodate remote school. Eileen Carter-Campos, a third grade teacher in the Newburgh Enlarged City School District in New York’s Hudson Valley region, often finds her internet unusable in the morning due to the high demand from remote classes. Not only is she constantly kicked out of her Google Meet calls, but she sometimes doesn’t receive emails from students until the day after they’re sent. 

In the first week of remote teaching, Carter-Campos says, “There was such an overload that I had to contact Spectrum and was like, ‘Can you check my modem?’ I wanted to make sure I was running on high speed. I was running on the highest speed, but we were having a lag because every school district was on.” Carter-Campos now has to start her classes later in the day, at lower-traffic times.

Empty homes in Newburgh, New York.
Photo by Don Emmert / AFP via Getty Images

Other areas are realizing now, thanks to virtual education, just how disconnected their district is. Cilla Green is a music teacher for the Caddo Hills school district in southwest Arkansas. Over half of Green’s students don’t have internet that allows them to stream — some have satellite, some have bad cable, and none have a high-speed connection. The district, when planning for a blend of online and in-person instruction, was taken by surprise.

“We didn’t realize how many of our students did not have that availability.”

“We didn’t realize how many of our students did not have that availability,” Green said. “I thought some of our students should be able to stream and most of them were like ‘No, we have internet service through our phones and it’s not very good’ or ‘I have internet service but I can’t do any streaming, it’s only good for email.’” 

Amid all of this, teachers are doing everything they can. 

Alex Beene teaches adult education and ACT prep classes in western Tennessee. By his estimate, over 70 percent of households in his area don’t have reliable internet access, including around half of Beene’s adult students and 15 to 20 percent of his ACT students. He’s running ACT classes over Zoom, while his adult education classes are blended; students can schedule appointments to come in one at a time, but lessons are mostly online.

“This is just a huge, earth-shattering event for them,” Beene told The Verge. “If you don’t have a high-school diploma, you’re already at a disadvantage in the workplace. And now you have employers who have sent them home, and they say ‘I can finally work on my diploma.’ Well, if you don’t have that internet access, you can’t do that either.”

“And the longer they stay out of that environment without eligible internet ... the more behind they become,” he added.

Throughout the summer, Beene has been printing out study packets. If students can’t pick them up at school, he mails them to their homes. When the students finish their packets, they mail them back for Beene to grade. If they have questions, he’ll call them on the phone with a copy of their assignment in hand. He has to be quick, though — some of his students have prepaid smartphone plans with limited minutes. 

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For students who are very disconnected, Beene has to get even more creative. “I’ll go over common math strategies in their everyday lives,” he says. “I’ll tell them to go through, as they’re going to the supermarket, to see an item and figure out sales tax on it. If they have monthly payments, figure out how much interest they’re doing. Anything we can do to keep their minds engaged.” 

Such workarounds seemed feasible as a temporary solution in March. But as online class stretches on, it’s become clear to Beene and his colleagues that they can’t come close to replacing in-person education.  

“Anything we can do to keep their minds engaged.”

“This pandemic has taught us that this [broadband] is not something that families need to be without,” Beene said. “This needs to be just like water in the year 2020. Every home needs to have it. It needs to be running and plentiful. It’s opening our eyes to the fact that we need, for education, to have an infrastructure that allows all of our families to be online.”

Schools in Connecticut’s Region One district, which services a 275-mile area with approximately 13,000 residents, received some state funding to create hotspots in public places throughout its six municipalities — town halls, libraries, school buildings. In a recent survey of the region, almost half of respondents said they were unhappy with their internet service, and two-thirds said they don’t have reliable cell service in their homes.

Students can come to the hotspots, download their assignments, work on those assignments at home, then go back to the hotspots to submit them. They can also participate in live lessons next to the hotspots, from their cars, if necessary. 

“This is not desirable,” says Lisa Carter, Region One interim superintendent. “We’re doing our best to make things work.” 

That’s a sentiment shared by every professional I spoke to. Since March, the Spring Grove Area School District in Pennsylvania has been distributing hotspots to its distance learning students and publicizing a list of locations where students can access public Wi-Fi. But Chris Enck, Spring Grove’s IT director, hoped it was temporary. He thought the area would have better access by now.

“This is not something that the educational community’s going to solve on its own,” said Enck. “We need support from the government.” Enck has been waiting for that support, but he says it hasn’t come. “I know government doesn’t move fast — it’s been six months. And my question is: Have we made any progress? It’s been six months we’ve been in that situation. I don’t know that we’re any further ahead now than we were back on March 13th.” 

Carter agrees that hotspots aren’t enough for the long haul. To keep students engaged, Carter says her district needs the government to step in. It needs guaranteed access.

“Access to broadband should be a public utility. When the telephone first started, it was determined that everyone should have access,” Carter said. “The same was true with television and radio broadcasting.” Carter believes internet access should be no different. “It’s something none of us can live without,” she said. “That’s an essential ingredient of what we need to communicate with each other as 21st-century people.”

Some communities have taken matters into their own hands. A small number of rural areas — around 9 percent — use fiber-optic networks, which are substantially faster than DSL. Northwest ConneCT is an advocacy group committed to bringing such a service to northwest Connecticut — 35 percent of which doesn’t have cable service, by the group’s estimate

“If we want robust, reliable internet, we’re going to have to do it ourselves.”

“We’re never going to see wireless communications built out in these areas,” said Wayne Hileman, chairman of Northwest ConneCT. “There’s no economic incentive for any incumbent provider to come in and do this for us. If we want robust, reliable internet service in our corner of Connecticut, we’re going to have to do it ourselves.”

Northwest ConneCT has seen a surge of local attention since classes went online. “For the first time people needed true two-way internet in their homes and they were aghast to find out they didn’t have it,” said Hileman. “They’re saying ‘I thought I was getting this great service,’ and the truth is they’re not.” 

But building that sort of infrastructure at a community level is no easy task. Northwest ConneCT has been at it for over five years. The group initially developed a plan in which communities would contract for construction and ownership of trunk wiring on poles. Connecticut’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA), with pressure from cable companies, ruled in May 2018 that an old state statute that granted municipalities free access to utility poles didn’t apply to commercial broadband. Northwest ConneCT sued PURA and won in late 2019 after a multiyear court dispute.    

The fight is still far from over. Northwest ConneCT is now battling other regulatory hiccups, including one that would bar towns from modifying poles until their owners have deemed them “ready,” allowing them to slow-walk and delay the process. Northwest ConneCT is currently working on a bill. It’s tried others in the past but hasn’t yet gotten one to a vote.

The saga underscores the hurdles involved in expanding high-speed internet access without private sector or larger government support. “Solutions tend to be very expensive, and that’s why it requires a lot of work between a lot of players,” said Peter Hajdu, CEO of Dura-Line, which designs conduits that help deploy fiber-optic cables in rural areas. “We have to invest more altogether, the private participants, the private corporations like ours, the big service providers, as well as the federal government.”

Hajdu added, “It’s a really hard job.” 

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