A Blog by Jonathan Low


Oct 7, 2020

America's Internet Wasn't Prepared For Online School

Even if rural and economically disadvantaged urban areas had access to high speed internet - which half do not - most residents could not afford it. JL

Monica Chin reports in The Verge:

Almost seven months later, rural districts around the country are still scrambling to accommodate all of their pupils. It’s become clear to teachers, administrators, and community members that the digital divide is too big for schools to bridge on their own. The infrastructure needed to teach rural students remotely would require systemic change. Just two-thirds of rural Americans have broadband access, compared to three-quarters of urban residents and 79% of suburban residents.

It’s not uncommon for households in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, to lose internet for a full day. The last time it happened, back in the spring, Christina Rothermel-Branham connected herself (a professor at Northeastern State University, teaching online) and her son (a kindergartener at Heritage Elementary, learning online) to the hotspot on her phone. Luckily, nobody had a Zoom call scheduled that day; worksheets and YouTube videos proceeded as planned.

Rothermel-Branham’s son is now in first grade. He has multiple Zoom sessions per day and takes online classes through Outschool. She doesn’t know what they’ll do the next time their house loses service. She hopes her phone’s hotspot will be able to handle both of their video calls at once — but she’s worried that it won’t.

Rothermel-Branham’s son is one of the millions of students around the US who are currently taking some (or all) of their classes remotely. That’s been the status quo since the spring for many districts, which moved instruction online to limit the spread of COVID-19. The first few weeks of school were difficult for rural families. Teachers struggled to reach disconnected students, using phone calls, social media, and text messages. But they only had to finish the spring, and many hoped that by the start of the new school year in the fall, things would be better.

Almost seven months later, rural districts around the country are still scrambling to accommodate all of their pupils. It’s become clear to teachers, administrators, and community members that the digital divide is too big for schools to bridge on their own. The infrastructure needed to teach rural students remotely would require systemic change — it would require government assistance. Months into the pandemic, educators say they still don’t have what they need.

Part of the problem for rural areas is income. Just over half of households with annual incomes under $30,000 use broadband internet, according to Pew Research Center. Poverty rates are much higher in non-metro areas than they are in metro areas across the US — and the largest gap, by far, is in the South. And the COVID-19 pandemic, which demolished 113 straight months of job growth, has overwhelmingly impacted low-income minority communities.

The average cost of internet service is $60 per month in the US. And in areas where cable isn’t available, some families need to turn to satellite service, which is even more expensive at $100 per month on average. That’s a cost not all families can bear, especially during a recession.

But high-speed internet isn’t an option even for some households that could afford the service. The Federal Communication Commission’s broadband standard is a download speed of at least 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 megabits per second (colloquially, “25/3”). Those speeds, considered to be the minimum needed for a single 4K Netflix stream, are unheard of in some rural areas.

Just two-thirds of rural Americans have broadband access, per Pew, compared to three-quarters of urban residents and 79 percent of suburban residents. But it’s hard to measure how widespread the service actually is because the FCC’s broadband maps are notoriously terrible and classify a ZIP code as “served” if just one home has access.

Laying cables in areas where very few paying customers live isn’t an attractive investment option for providers. This is compounded by nature — hills, lakes, rivers, forests, and other terrain can both interfere with wireless signals and present challenges to laying infrastructure in the first place. And these regions can be hard hit by power outages. Trees and leaves interfere with power lines during adverse weather, and since crews prioritize restoring power to the largest groups of customers, areas where the fewest people live are often the last to get service back.

Deloitte estimated in 2017 that modernizing rural broadband across the country would require a $130–$150 billion infrastructure investment. Democrats proposed a $1 billion investment earlier this year, but it did not pass.

Even areas where internet is widespread don’t all have the bandwidth to accommodate remote school. Eileen Carter-Campos, a third grade teacher in the Newburgh Enlarged City School District in New York’s Hudson Valley region, often finds her internet unusable in the morning due to the high demand from remote classes. Not only is she constantly kicked out of her Google Meet calls, but she sometimes doesn’t receive emails from students until the day after they’re sent.

In the first week of remote teaching, Carter-Campos says, “There was such an overload that I had to contact Spectrum and was like, ‘Can you check my modem?’ I wanted to make sure I was running on high speed. I was running on the highest speed, but we were having a lag because every school district was on.” Carter-Campos now has to start her classes later in the day, at lower-traffic times.Other areas are realizing now, thanks to virtual education, just how disconnected their district is. Cilla Green is a music teacher for the Caddo Hills school district in southwest Arkansas. Over half of Green’s students don’t have internet that allows them to stream — some have satellite, some have bad cable, and none have a high-speed connection. The district, when planning for a blend of online and in-person instruction, was taken by surprise.

“We didn’t realize how many of our students did not have that availability,” Green said. “I thought some of our students should be able to stream and most of them were like ‘No, we have internet service through our phones and it’s not very good’ or ‘I have internet service but I can’t do any streaming, it’s only good for email.’”

Amid all of this, teachers are doing everything they can.


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