Life without reliable internet remains a daily struggle for millions of Americans
By Alejandra Marquez Janse, Amy Isackson, Ailsa Chang
Published November 22, 2021
Three days and one hour into the 2021-22 school year, the internet went out at Owhyhee Combined School in northern Nevada.
Teachers scrambled to recreate their lesson plans and presentations, and could not log attendance.
"We don't have a way to ensure that students are in the right classes at the right moment," said Lynn Manning-John, vice principal at the K-12 school.
"We did have a student exhibiting COVID symptoms this morning, so finding that student's data in order to reach their family is also something we can't do because we don't have the internet."
In-person classes had just resumed after a year of mostly remote learning. But for the students, instructors and administrators at Owyhee, this wasn't an entirely new problem. The community has never had reliable high-speed internet access.
Before the pandemic, they could just wait for connectivity to return, Manning-John said. But school materials and systems were moved online to enable remote learning. And internet problems also plagued the last year of online school — many students were unable to log into their classes from home.
The town of Owyhee is about 100 miles away from the closest towns with services — requiring a road trip of 1 1/2 hours to buy groceries, for example. It sits on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, home to the Shoshone-Paiute tribes, in northern Nevada and southern Idaho.
Manning-John said their remote location has complicated their efforts to get connected for years.
"We want fiber, we want 5G, we want the latest technologies, but we are so isolated, it's challenging for [telecommunications companies] to get their employees to come here," she said.
The Reservation has only one cell tower, and only one hard-wired internet provider, according to Mary Howard, computer systems administrator at the reservation. But that internet connection is slow and unreliable, and Manning-John said it doesn't even reach her house. She and her five children rely on their phones' hotspots to connect to the internet at home.
That made working and studying from home a challenge for the past year-and-a-half. Other students at Owyhee faced an even greater challenge, Manning-John said.
"[My kids], their mom works at the school. Their mom can afford internet. Their mom could afford them to have a phone with a personal hotspot service included in our package," she said. "We are the exception."
Broadband and the digital divide
The pandemic has laid bare the importance of having a high-speed internet connection, as many Americans have been forced to conduct their lives online. Yet, tens of millions of people across the country, especially in rural areas and tribal lands, lack the kind of fast or reliable connection they need for things like work, school and telehealth.
The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill recently signed by President Biden aims to help alleviate the problem by setting aside $65 billion for investment in broadband. Its biggest allocations would give $42.5 billion to states to fund broadband infrastructure, as well as $14.25 billion in subsidies to help low-income households afford internet access.
Lawmakers consulted with Kathryn de Wit, project director for the Broadband Access Initiative at the Pew Charitable Trusts, and her team while crafting the legislation. She said the package was a "significant down payment" in getting underserved households connected — in part because it also leant on the Federal Communications Commission to better determine exactly who lacked high-speed internet access.
The FCC estimated 14.5 million people in the U.S. lived in areas without access to broadband at the end of 2019, while the data aggregation company BroadbandNow estimated that number to be 42 million. The White House says 30 million.
In 2020, separate legislation required the FCC to update its broadband access maps. Tired of waiting for those updates, some states have already deployed their own methods to track broadband access. The new legislation pressures the FCC to finish its map updates by making the funding contingent on the submission of those updates — and also stipulates a process by which states may challenge the FCC's maps with their own.
Then there are questions of what actually constitutes high internet speeds. The FCC defines broadband as an internet connection with minimum speeds of 25 megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload. De Wit notes those minimum speeds can be insufficient at the level of demand witnessed during the pandemic.
"What that [means] is that one person in the household can get on the internet, they can shop, they can just kind of surf the web, they can send email with limited interference," de Wit said. "As soon as you have more users who are on that connection, who are doing more complex tasks like, for example, , connecting with doctors, talking to or participating in education, the quality of that connection is going to degrade," she said.
De Wit further points out that the FCC's count is based on the number of households that have access to a broadband connection with the maximum speeds advertised by providers — not the actual speeds they receive.
The infrastructure bill would not change the 25/3 definition of broadband — but would require those receiving grants to provide a minimum service of 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload speed.
What is clear even with the spotty available data is that most of the people who lack access to broadband live in rural, remote, low-income and tribal lands. Low population density and geographic barriers may discourage a service provider from offering service to that region.
"It's important to remember that we are talking about a for-profit industry," de Wit said. "So when we are looking at communities that are not densely populated, perhaps where income levels are lower, where providers don't see an obvious business case, it is then incumbent upon the public sector to identify opportunities to incentivize investment in those communities."
In places where broadband is available, some households may not be able to afford the services. A Pew survey conducted earlier this year found 45% of the respondents who didn't have broadband cited monthly cost as a reason not to have it.
De Wit said the new data from the FCC would help not only understand where broadband access is most needed, but also illustrate where there may be a connection available, but not affordable.
"The digital divide is really complicated, and so where we would like to see additional support is for state and local leaders to be able to collect the data that they need in order to illustrate just how many unserved households there are in communities that are 'served' based on federal data," she said.
Waiting for a solution in the Duck Valley
The infrastructure bill establishes $2 billion in funding specifically for tribal communities — Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiians. That gives Manning-John some reassurance that tribal areas won't be fighting against states and municipalities for the federal money.
In the meantime, she updates her phone only when she stays at a hotel out of town and can catch Wi-Fi for a few hours. She sees parents park near the school to connect to its internet when school switches to online learning to limit the spread of the virus. She sees her 11th-grade daughter take online classes powered by a cellphone hotspot — and she longs for a day without so many connection woes.
Then, she looks at the land in the Duck Valley Reservation and remembers why she has chosen to stay.
"We have to remember, again, as we go through some of the more 21st century problems of no internet, that our ancestors put us in the right spot so that when everything shuts down, we still have our beautiful land and everything we need to survive," she said.
Yet, she acknowledges that surviving in the modern age — especially during a pandemic — is almost impossible on the reservation without high speed internet.
"Our isolation historically has allowed us to preserve our language and culture and traditions, and that's served us," she said. "However, it doesn't serve us in the age of the internet when we need up-to-date, up-to-the-minute information; we need to be able to push out information and instruction."
This story is part of our All Things Considered series looking at the infrastructure bill recently signed by the president. Alejandra Marquez Janse and Amy Isackson produced this story for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon helped to adapt it to the web.
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