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Closing the internet gap

The pandemic-year shift to online learning challenges low-income and rural families without reliable internet. But school districts and governments are searching for solutions

Closing the internet gap

Landen Davis uses the family tablet for homework while his mom Kristie helps his sister Emerson. (Kyle LaFerriere/Genesis)

Eleven-year-old Hannah Davis’ futile attempt to complete a math test began at 10:15 on a rainy weekday morning in late September. That’s when she logged in to an online class from her home in Amherst County, Va., and heard her schoolteacher announce the assignment.

The Davis home is remote and lacks dependable internet service, so the family relies on a cell phone plan with Sprint: For an extra $15 a month, the company provides an internet-enabled tablet. To complete online schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic, Hannah and younger siblings Landen and Emerson take turns doing homework on the tablet at the kitchen table—or on the couch. 

But the math test wasn’t compatible with a tablet. So Hannah switched to her laptop, using the tablet as an internet hot spot. But then the wet weather slowed the hot spot Wi-Fi, and Hannah found herself locked out of the test.

So she climbed in the car with her mother, Kristie Davis, who drove to school. Amherst County Public Schools is beaming Wi-Fi into parking lots during the pandemic. The Davises avoid parking lot schoolwork when they can—Emerson, in preschool, hates sitting in her car seat. She finishes her work first and repeatedly asks to use the bathroom until she convinces her family to leave.

On this day, Hannah and her mother ping-ponged between the parking lot and home. Locked out by unstable Wi-Fi and waiting on a teacher busy with other classes, they gave up at 7 p.m., leaving the test unfinished.

In 2018, Pew Research estimated 15 percent of U.S. households with school-aged children lacked reliable, high-speed home internet. In recent years, a growing number of school districts have given laptops to students but left them on their own to find internet after school. Even before the pandemic, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) found 7 in 10 teachers assigned online homework, and research linked home broadband access to higher test scores and college attendance. This so-called “homework gap” became a chasm during the pandemic as homework hubs like libraries and community centers closed, pushing more students into parking lots for homework or leaving them entirely logged off during remote schooling.

In response, a growing number of states and school districts nationwide have taken responsibility for providing students with home internet—first with patchwork efforts, then with comprehensive plans meant to outlast the pandemic. In urban areas, this means funding internet plans and getting the word out. In rural areas, where households are twice as likely to lack high-speed internet, it means investing in infrastructure. But stop-gap fixes may not come before the pandemic-altered school year is over.

Kyle LaFerriere/Genesis

Using a tablet, Hannah Davis does her history homework from the couch. (Kyle LaFerriere/Genesis)

AMHERST COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS required families to choose between remote schooling or a hybrid model this fall. The county has nine internet service providers (ISPs), but 50 percent of its residents only have access to one, according to Jessica Fowler of Lit Communities, an internet consultant company. The lack of choice drives prices up and speeds down. Amherst’s low population density discourages ISPs from installing fiber optic cable, and its wooded and mountainous terrain cripples line-of-sight towers, which require a clear view from towers to homes. So Amherst residents cobble together internet solutions.

Take Lesley McPhatter, a resident who gets internet from a line-of-sight tower on a mountain visible from her bedroom window. A dietitian and mother of three, McPhatter pays $130 a month for 30 megabits per second (Mbps) of download speed, more than enough to stream video on multiple devices simultaneously. “When it works, it’s great,” she said.

But it doesn’t always work. Line-of-sight towers use a high-frequency signal, fast but easily slowed. One owner of a rural ISP compared tower signal on foggy and rainy days to firing a bullet into a swimming pool: The signal still travels, but slower and not as far. 

The FCC recommends at least 3 Mbps for a single device to perform low-demand activities like downloading email. McPhatter ran eight speed tests in September and logged an average download speed of 2.8 Mbps. Twice this summer, storms downed McPhatter’s Wi-Fi altogether. 

For McPhatter’s daughter Kallena, a high-school junior with online summer homework, this was a problem. So McPhatter bought a mobile Wi-Fi box that uses her cell phone carrier, Verizon. Verizon is the only carrier to serve the McPhatters’ house, and it only reaches the front porch, so Kallena did her homework from there. After downloading 10 gigabytes of data a month, the Wi-Fi box’s speed throttles down, so sometimes Kallena drove a few miles to use the internet at her aunt’s house. When Kallena has a timed assignment, everyone stays off the internet, and McPhatter’s husband downloads files on hotel Wi-Fi during his business trips. 

McPhatter said the family treats their internet like water from an unreliable well, rationing for their highest priorities: “You’re just kind of piecemealing and praying that you can get through.” 

Virginia is the 15th most broadband-connected state, according to an estimate by BroadbandNow. Less connected states face the same obstacles as Amherst, exacerbated by greater poverty and smaller populations. And experts agree the FCC overestimates rural internet access: If an ISP reaches a single household in a census block, the FCC counts the entire block as covered. 

Courtesy of Natalie Szewczyk

Last spring, high-school senior Natalie Szewczyk spent about three hours a day on most weekdays doing schoolwork in her car in the parking lot of Sanderson Academy in Ashfield, Mass. (Courtesy of Natalie Szewczyk)

TO ADDRESS INTERNET access problems, lawmakers set aside grant money in the CARES Act for states to expand broadband services. Washington, D.C.’s school district, for example, launched a CARES Act–funded program in early September to give 25,000 low-income public-school students free home broadband, faster and more reliable than cellular internet. The district advertised it by sending eligible families emails, texts, and robo­calls. But by early October, education news site The 74 reported the $3.3 million initiative had only enrolled about 4,000 families. Jack Lynch of EducationSuperHighway, a school internet advocacy group, said a similar program in Chicago also struggled until it enlisted community groups to get the word out.

Both programs rely on existing offers from internet service providers, such as Comcast’s Internet Essentials, which provides internet for low-income or other qualifying households at about $10 a month. When school districts pay the bill, they become the middlemen, streamlining enrollment for families and the billing process for ISPs. Lynch said the $10 offers have improved during the pandemic as more ISPs launch programs and stop requiring sensitive information like Social Security numbers or credit checks from families that enroll. 

But the programs only work where the ISPs offer service. Another Amherst County resident, Harley Childress, lives in a rural area and doesn’t have access to wired internet options. She can’t afford the $150-per-month cost of satellite internet.

Childress’ mother lives a few miles away, closer to the center of town. Comcast reaches her home, and she qualifies for its Internet Essentials program. Every school morning around 10 o’clock, Childress loads her three children with their backpacks and Chromebooks into the car and drives to her mother’s house. There she divides her time between helping the older two with homework and busying her 4-year-old with letter-writing and games.

Common rural internet options have drawbacks. Satellite internet reaches rural areas and works for basic browsing, but the upload and download process creates a few seconds of lag that destroys video calls. Attempts to piggyback internet on established electrical lines ended with slow speeds and interference. Copper phone lines work better but require constant maintenance to repair cracked casings—otherwise, households lose service every time it rains and water gets in the lines. According to Fowler of Lit Communities, hot spots only work if nearby cellular towers have enough capacity for a sudden surge. Otherwise, it’s like adding cars to an already crowded road, and everyone’s internet drags in the resulting traffic jam.

In Amherst County, public school Superintendent Robert Arnold estimates 35 percent of students don’t have reliable home internet. The district offered an alternative approach for those students: paper packets and flash drives downloaded with the week’s lessons. Both Childress and Davis tried the flash drives but gave up on them as too complicated, a jumble of files with unclear due dates.

Arnold considered distributing hot spots early in the pandemic, but decided most families without Wi-Fi didn’t have good cell phone service, either. The school district deployed Wi-Fi buses to church parking lots, with login information taped to the windows, but didn’t have a clear idea how many families used the service. A pastor at one church with a bus, Madison Heights Baptist, hadn’t noticed if anyone used the Wi-Fi. On a September afternoon, the church’s parking lot was empty except for the bus and a few children playing with their dog. By mid-October, the bus was gone. 

Amherst has tried to improve its internet before. Homeowners opposed a proposed Verizon tower they feared would spoil views of the mountains. Eighty-one signed a petition, others spoke at public meetings, and the county Board of Supervisors vetoed the tower. Board member Claudia Tucker was the lone dissenting vote. She can see four towers from her front porch and understands homeowners’ concerns, but she considers broadband essential for county growth. 

“Everybody wants internet until there’s a slight aesthetic inconvenience,” Tucker said. 

But she also said the pandemic has created a sense of urgency around broadband access. When a chunk of federal funding from the CARES Act arrived, the school district and county joined forces, hiring consultant Lit Communities to help them spend it wisely. They must spend some by the new year or forfeit it, so the county hired a company to string and bury fiber for about 200 households, 130 of them with students. It plans to pay the rest to an electrical company to install cable internet for homes.

Eric Gay/AP

Spencer Hollers works to equip Southside Independent School District buses with Wi-Fi in San Antonio, Texas. (Eric Gay/AP)

JACK LYNCH AT THE GROUP EducationSuperHighway sees many districts and states fighting for broadband with new intensity thanks to the pandemic. COVID-19 has also prompted renewed calls for the FCC to declare internet a public utility like electricity or water. That would usher in government funding to build infrastructure and allow the FCC to regulate prices. 

Current FCC leadership staunchly resists that proposal (see sidebar). Even if the FCC reversed course, Lynch doesn’t think prices could fall much lower than the $10 option ISPs already offer low-income households. To him, the district and ISP partnerships already underway are likely the most effective solution.

Still, he sees one crucial gap: “The money’s going to run out.” Many states and urban school districts are using CARES Act money to pay students’ broadband bills, and when that’s gone, they’ll have to find new funding or end the service. In contrast, rural areas with less poverty, like Amherst County, can’t offer the instant solutions of districts in urban areas but will have an easier road once they clear the infrastructure hurdle. If all goes well, Amherst’s tactic of incentivizing a company to build infrastructure will improve broadband access without continued county funding.

But countywide broadband likely won’t arrive before the pandemic ends. In the meantime, Harley Childress and her children keep visiting her mother each day. They get home around 4 p.m., and if they forgot to upload an assignment, it waits until the next day. 

Childress has heard about the county’s efforts to improve internet. “I think that’s a great thing,” she said. “I just wish it could be a little bit faster.”  

Is internet a utility?

Should internet be a public ­utility?

Some say yes. They point out that, globally, the United States’ broadband is 11th in speed and 119th in affordability, according to analyses by DecisionData.org and Cable.co.uk. Broadband advocates say declaring internet a necessity would allow the government to control prices and fully fund infrastructure to reach rural homes—much like what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did for electricity. His administration increased rural electrification from about 10 percent in the 1930s to 90 percent by 1945, according to research by the University of Texas.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) head Ajit Pai says no, preferring a “light-touch” approach to broadband regulation. He says this fosters innovation that will provide better, cheaper internet to more people sooner. Technology researcher Scott Wallsten notes that innovation in broadband technology has exploded while electricity remained comparatively stagnant. Wallsten also wrote in an essay for Technology Policy Institute that households have adopted broadband faster than they did electricity, so more federal intervention may not be necessary to close remaining gaps.

If the FCC ever changes its position, lawmakers would still likely face legal challenges from internet service providers and would need to find about $80 billion to implement changes, according to an FCC estimate. —E.E.

Esther Eaton

Esther Eaton