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.