Many rural students still lack access to fast internet

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It was February 2020 and Allen Fort was fed up.

He was tired, he said, of all the “yak, yak, yak” with no meaningful change to help poor, rural school districts like his. “Haven’t we ‘talked’ enough?” the longtime superintendent of schools in Taliaferro County, Georgia, written in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Fort planned to retire after more than four decades as an educator. Then the pandemic exploded. He stayed.

And again, we talked about rural needs: this time, the need for Internet access.

There was action. The private sector has offered to help. Congress has set aside billions of dollars for rural communities through the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This spring, the Biden administration announced everything from a “Rural Infrastructure Handbook” has a $45 Billion Internet for All Initiativepromising to bring “affordable, reliable, and high-speed internet to everyone in America.”

But experts say those efforts still won’t be enough. There are hidden barriers: hotspots that don’t work as advertised, subsidies for rural broadband that don’t include affordability in their equations. Then there are not so hidden ones. Difficult topographies, such as thick forests or isolated mountains, which do not offer an easy solution at high speeds. Faulty maps that prevent officials from answering the much simpler question: who has access and who doesn’t?

The result: Students in America’s poorest, most remote areas — places like Taliaferro County that need high-speed internet the most — stay offlineleaving them further and further behind their more urban peers.

As e-commerce and internet services have become key components of the national economy, rural communities have more and more left out.

This divide has also widened educational gaps, with students in rural areas twice as likely say they didn’t have the technology they needed to complete their courses. Students without internet access or dependent on cellphones were generally half a point behind their connected peers, according to a 2020 study, a deficit that had ripple effects “that can last a lifetime”.

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Fort and his colleagues were well aware that the education gap was widening between urban students and their own students in Taliaferro, where the majority of the county’s 1,558 residents are black and nearly a quarter live below the poverty line. federal.

School bus drivers made hour-and-a-half trips, often interrupted by wild pigs or free-roaming cattle, handing out sandwiches and picking up paper homework along the way. Each of the county’s roughly 200 students received Dell laptops and mobile hotspots, while officials extended the school’s WiFi into the parking lot to enable online instruction and Zoom classes.

However, hotspots operated by national mobile phone companies did not provide the promised coverage.

“It’s a weak signal that you might be able to call 911 with, but not something you can put computers on for two or three students in a household,” Fort says, after his district failed to switch. between Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile.

In more than a year of distance learning, Taliaferro students like Geronta Bailey, 18, who graduated this month, were disconnected. of their lessons. From their classmates. Of the society.

“It’s so quiet. No games. The TV is broken,” Bailey says. I was hardly able to go to school anymore.

Even after in-person classes returned, Bailey finished his homework between classes because he still didn’t have internet at home.

“We should have free Wi-Fi. Because it’s something we need,” he says. “Of course, we need a lot of things. Food. Water.”

Taliaferro does not have a fresh grocery store, although there are three different dollar stores with dry and frozen goods across the street from the school. About two-thirds of county residents rely on private wells for water and individual septic tanks for waste water.

Bailey says he doesn’t think college is for him. Like many of his classmates, he plans to work at Amazon’s fulfillment center nearly an hour away or take up the offer from the army recruiter who knocked on his door a few years ago. weeks.

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Taliaferro’s most ambitious effort to extend Internet access was a partnership to test new broadband technology with the University of Augusta and the Georgia Cyber ​​Centera unit of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

“A perfect intersection of innovation,” Georgia Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan (R) told a press conference in April 2021 in front of the only school in Taliaferro.

The technology was intended to overcome the county’s low population density and heavy tree cover and create a rural Internet delivery model that the state and nation could follow.

“If they could figure out how to do it there, they could use it as a model to get pretty much anywhere else in the state,” says Graham Castleton, a Utah-based connectivity consultant hired by the Cyber Center to test Internet options. for the county.

Castleton began immediately, placing a transmitter at the chicken feed factory and transponders at the school, courthouse and local barbecue.

Ultimately, his report recommended actions, including building three new cell towers, to connect nearly every one of the county’s 660 homes with 75/20 Mbps Internet. According to Castleton, these speeds are high enough to allow multiple users to effectively stream classes and work meetings.

However, it would cost about $1.5 million upfront, plus $200,000 per year, or a monthly rate of about $25 per household.

It was a disheartening price for a county whose total 2022 budget was just $4.3 million.

Taliaferro appears to be the exact type of community the Biden administration and Congress have set aside billions for — more than $400 billion between the two major spending packages signed last year.

However, rural areas like Taliaferro face another major hurdle: Despite years of talk about bringing broadband to rural areas, the federal government doesn’t actually know where those areas are.

The Federal Communications Commission broadband deployment maps are “brokenagree policy experts and lawmakers, relying heavily on self-reported data that encourages providers to overestimate their coverage.

The FCC Matters an entire census block is connected if an ISP only serves a single household in that block with a minimum speed that experts consider too slow anyway: 25/3 Mbps Internet, enough for a single user to stream streaming content.

“I worked for five years in a university cafeteria, and I think of what would have happened if I had said, ‘I served a meal, so I can go home now’, to the 800 other people who tail,” says Josh. Seidemann, vice president of policy for the Rural Broadband Association.

Lawmakers have known the FCC cards were a problem for years. But it wasn’t until March 2020, when the coronavirus shutdowns began, that Congress passed a bill. to improve maps.

After multiple delays (the FCC now says the maps will be ready in the fall), some states, including Georgia, have started creating their own. The delay freezes billions of dollars in broadband rollout funds approved last year, leaving countless rural communities in limbo.

In February, the Taliaferro School District and the Cyber ​​Center requested the Reconnect Programthe Department of Agriculture’s main rural broadband subsidy, which relies in part on these FCC cards.

However, they were soon deemed ineligible. As the county awaited the results of its long-delayed Cyber ​​Center study, local internet service provider Relyant Communications won a grant to build its own fiber network in the region – charging households four times as much for slower speeds than the Cyber ​​Center proposal. The USDA does not consider affordability when determining whether an area is “covered,” a factor some experts say should be included.

Jameshia Lawson, another recent graduate from Taliaferro, used this internet to apply for colleges from home after her family upgraded from the cellphone hotspots they previously used.

“When we were homeschooling, I wasn’t really doing my job. I would sleep,” Lawson says. “Now the internet is fast and I can apply for universities.”

Yet many residents of Taliaferro cannot afford Internet Relyant, with school staff estimating that at least 40% of students still do not have reliable home Internet.

Mid-May, the Biden administration announced an agreement to provide $30-a-month packages to low-income households from 20 major ISPs that already cover about 80% of the US population. But even that won’t help Taliaferro, as Relyant’s parent company isn’t on this list.

Internet service providers that cannot afford to follow the White House plan disproportionately serve the most rural and remote parts of America, like this county in Georgia.

And so, two years later, Allen Fort is still fed up.

Sitting in the school’s computer lab, the superintendent points to a small foam cup of water in the middle of the table.

“They don’t lie. You have a signal now,” he said.

But for Fort, it’s like having 10 people at the table, and everyone is thirsty. Of course, they all have access to water from this cup. But as soon as a person starts drinking it?

Nick Fouriezos is a national reporter covering rural higher education for the nonprofit Newsroom Open Campus.

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