Not only has the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic exposed our nation’s dire lack of medical equipment and protective gear, but it has also shone a light on the inadequacy of our rural broadband networks.
A recent CNN article, “Why rural Americans are having a hard time working from home,” by Harmeet Kaur, explores the many struggles that rural households face now that jobs, schools, and everything else has moved online and their outdated broadband connections can’t keep up.
“We Should Be Embarrassed”
CNN reports that while only 1.4 percent of urban Americans don’t have access to broadband speeds of at least 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload, more than a quarter of rural households don’t have broadband available to them. And almost three quarters don’t have access to faster upload speeds of 25 Mbps.
These disparate stats are currently on display at parking lots across the country, as families without adequate home connectivity are forced to drive to open Wi-Fi hotspots and sit in their cars while completing assignments for school and work.
The article shared how one teacher in rural Virginia has turned her school’s parking lot into her new office:
Every Sunday since the coronavirus lockdown started, Stephanie Anstey drives 20 minutes from her home in Grottoes, Virginia, to sit in her school's near-empty parking lot and type away on her laptop. Anstey, a middle school history teacher, lives in a valley between two mountains, where the only available home internet option is a satellite connection. Her emails can take 30 seconds to load, only to quit mid-message. She can't even open files on Google Drive, let alone upload lesson modules or get on a Zoom call with colleagues.
“We are the country that created the internet,” Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks initiative, said in the article. “We should be embarrassed that millions of people have to drive to a closed library or a fast food restaurant in order to do their jobs or do their homework.”
High Costs, Slow Speeds
The CNN article points to a number of reasons for the dearth of high-quality Internet access throughout rural America.
Deploying broadband infrastructure is expensive in urban and rural communities, but in sparsely populated areas, the cost per potential subscriber is much higher. Because of that math, companies often refuse to upgrade their rural networks, leaving many residents and businesses stuck with outdated, slow, and unreliable connectivity.
One household interviewed in the article relies on a DSL connection with only 6 Mbps speeds that isn’t enough for the family of four:
Addie Maiden, a seventh grade special-needs teacher in Dahlonega, Georgia, has DSL internet from a major telecoms company — the only provider available where she lives, she says. While the internet at home has always been slow, now she and her three sons — ages 15, 13 and 5 — are having to share already limited bandwidth as they try to work and learn from home . . . To make things work, her family disconnects the TV from the Internet and turn off the Wi-Fi on their phones . . . "It would be nice if we could all get our work done at the same time so that it wasn't staggered throughout the day," Maiden said.
Even when broadband networks are available, many rural residents can’t afford the high monthly fees that result from little to no competition for providers. Some people, including Virginia resident Debbie Hill and her family, turn to less costly mobile hotspots to get online, the article explains. However, these mobile plans often feature restrictive data caps that aren’t enough for families that now must turn to the Internet for everything from work meetings and school assignments to doctors appointments and movie nights. Hill told CNN how the data caps and slow speeds are affecting her son’s education:
It was hard enough to get her 11-year-old son to sit still and do schoolwork on a laptop, Hill said. But then the instructional videos he had to watch started buffering more often and the photos he had to take for assignments started taking longer to upload. The issues made the situation unworkable . . . "When you're fighting an 11-year-old to do schoolwork on a computer when it's lagging, Mommy loses," she said.
Finding a Fix
Though the federal government has set aside some additional funds for broadband deployment, it will have limited impact in the short term. The article explains:
Even with emergency federal funds to address connectivity issues, many Americans with inadequate Internet service likely won't see any immediate improvements, said Strange of Ookla, the internet testing company. The roots of the problem run deep, and addressing them will require efforts from state governments, nonprofit organizations and municipalities. "There's very little that a government agency can do during this tight timeframe to resolve this issue other than providing more access to existing services." Strange said. "You're not going to get networks improved necessarily during a time like this."
For more stories from rural Americans stuck at home without high-quality connectivity during the global health crisis, read the article, “Why rural Americans are having a hard time working from home.”