LOWER PEACH TREE, Ala. — Toward the end of a potholed country road, in the computer lab of a one-story school, the Internet one morning choked out a final quiz question about melting icebergs and then sputtered to a halt. The image of a spinning wheel popped onto Tatiana Flowers’s computer screen. Then Cedric Garner Jr.’s. Within 30 seconds, the problem had spread across the room, and 11 eighth-graders were again practicing the one skill their computer class seemed actually good for: patience.
“Miss Washington, my Learning.com buffering,” Flowers, 14, said.
“Mine buffering, too,” Garner, 13, said.
Another student tried to refresh his screen. “There is no Internet connection,” his Web browser said, and just above the type, there was an image of a dinosaur.
Monroe Intermediate, a K-8 school in rural Alabama, is a tech dinosaur only because it has little choice, sitting in an impoverished community of churches and trailer homes that telecom companies have little financial incentive to wire. Over the past decade and a half, corporations including AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have laid cabling that is capable of transmitting high-speed Internet across much of urban and suburban America. But educators say there is a problem: The companies have essentially finished building in every area where they believe they can profit. And several thousand of America’s schools sit outside these zones, according to EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit organization that measures Internet access in classrooms.
The experience of students at Monroe Intermediate shows how the financial decisions of telecom companies have put rural students at a disadvantage, leaving some without basic digital abilities that many in America take for granted. Federal regulators are working toward a fix for these out-of-reach of schools, but it’s unclear to what extent these efforts will solve the problem.
The schools with sub-par Internet are scattered around the country, spanning from the far-flung communities of Alaska to the desert towns of New Mexico. The danger is that students who attend these schools will struggle for years with the critical tasks that now require online fluency: applying to colleges, researching papers, looking for jobs.
“This is essentially the definition of the digital divide in education,” said Evan Marwell, the EducationSuperHighway founder and chief executive. “Students on the wrong side don’t have the same opportunity to compete.”
Marwell added that “the providers are kind of done building to all the areas they can rationalize on their own. So we need to figure out how to get it to those last places.”
While having only one provider in a region might mean higher cable or Internet bills in cities, in rural areas it can have profound consequences. For Internet access, Monroe depends on a nearly two-decade-old T1 line that, by the time it reaches dozens of individual computers, delivers speeds comparable to dial-up service. The school district’s administrators have tried for nearly two years to persuade AT&T to upgrade its service in the area, to no avail.
“I thought, in my little naive head, if I could just talk to them, explain to them that we have these 60-odd children in the middle of nowhere, they would understand,” said Devlynne Barnes, the technology director for Monroe County Schools.
Instead, Monroe has daily computer classes that start and stall; students sometimes need 30 minutes just to log in. It has 29 iPads, purchased with federal funding, that often go unused because of the hapless WiFi. It has students who talk about the Internet not as a reliable tool, but as a temperamental one. It works better in the mornings, they say. It works better on this side of the room. It works better when the sun is out.
Garner, in his morning computer class, groaned and stared at his idled Asus desktop computer. The room was made of cinder blocks, and on the wall was an antiquated poster defining 1990s computer terms: Boot, Click, CD/DVD, Cursor, Crash.
He opened Microsoft Word — a program that didn’t need the Internet — and whispered to Flowers, “I’m going to type out my own book.” But he had made it only one sentence (“This is the story of George Washington,” he had written) when he got bored. He placed his keyboard atop the computer tower and dropped his head on the desk.
Lower Peach Tree is one of the hardest-to-reach places in Alabama, at the far western edge of a county most famous for being the home of the late author Harper Lee. In much of the county, including at six other schools, Frontier Communications provides good broadband Internet. But Lower Peach Tree sits on the other side of the Alabama River, AT&T’s territory, and is reachable from Monroeville — the county seat — only by intermittent ferry service or a looping, one-hour drive. Many who live in Lower Peach Tree work as loggers or truck drivers. The town of fewer than 1,000 residents has no restaurants or gas stations.
As one enters Lower Peach Tree, thick trees and ramshackle homes line the road, and but for an occasional flicker, cellphone service dies off. Only about one-third of students at Monroe Intermediate have Internet at home; to get even that, their families subscribe to a satellite-based service that malfunctions during bad weather. During his one-hour morning route along the community’s snaking red dirt roads, the school’s bus driver, Raymond McConnell, doesn’t even bother carrying a cellphone.
“If there’s some kind of accident,” he said, “I’m just supposed to go up to the closest house and ask to use a land line. That’s what my boss told me.”
Educators say that rural areas, with limited curriculums and resources, in particular could benefit from digital advances that allow students to reach far beyond their towns. Spanish classes could Skype with students in Mexico City. Advanced students could take high school classes remotely. The problem is that such small towns also provide a limited pool of customers for any company thinking about making an investment.
Monroe Intermediate “is a really, really small school in a precarious area,” said Jerome Browning, a coordinator at Alabama’s Department of Education. “It doesn’t make any sense for vendors to come to that area.”
The copper lines that run to the Lower Peach Tree school were placed in the ground in the late 1990s by BellSouth, a company that merged with AT&T in 2006. Since then, the district has encountered a problem facing other rural schools: There is little competition to provide services. Some 7 percent of schools nationwide fail to find bidders when looking to upgrade Internet — according to the Consortium for School Networking, a Washington-based group that advocates for technology in the classroom — and in the case of Monroe Intermediate, district officials had no choice but to deal with the one company operating in that area: AT&T.
Beginning in 2014, Barnes said she grew frustrated enough with AT&T’s reluctance to wire Monroe Intermediate that she tried to contact a senior decision-maker. She was passed around from one contact to another, she said, and left “15 to 20” voice mails with four or five people. She also, for months, exchanged e-mails in which AT&T officials sound encouraging but don’t follow up.
Barnes, in one e-mail, said she was looking to find “the best solution for the most rural school in Alabama.”
“I can begin to take a look at capacity in the area,” one AT&T account manager wrote.
The district’s request was complicated. It needed AT&T to cooperate with the neighboring telecom company, Frontier. If AT&T was to build new lines, they would have to connect with Frontier’s, allowing Monroe Intermediate to receive data from the hub in Frontier territory — and remain on the district server, so information could be shared across all schools. At one point last October, Barnes said, AT&T brought up the possibility of building new lines — but not ones that would connect with Frontier. The district wasn’t interested.
AT&T, in a statement, said it tries to provide strong service to its customers, but “in this instance our communication with this school fell short.”
“This in no way reflects the significant work we do to connect rural America and thousands of schools, including those in hard-to-reach remote areas,” the company said. AT&T noted that 92 percent of schools in Alabama have high-speed Internet. It also said that, over the past six years, AT&T had invested more than “any other public company” to expand high-speed Internet availability.
Starting July 1, the Federal Communications Commission will provide a new option for schools that feel stuck: Those schools can hire their own outside companies to build their fiber connections, partially using federal funding, if the local telecom company won’t. The goal is to provide more leverage to schools than before.
But there are doubts from local educators that the proposal will actually be the cure they need. Monroe administrators, after talking recently with other telecom companies, estimate that it will cost $1 million to run fiber to Monroe Intermediate. U.S. taxpayers will pay for 80 percent, but that leaves the district on the hook for $200,000 — something it still can’t afford. Barnes, the technology coordinator, said the district might solicit donations.
Teachers at Monroe Intermediate say the lack of a strong Internet connection creates everyday obstacles. The school must upload emergency planning documents to a state portal. Daily attendance records are sent to the district office. Even when the Internet is working, bandwidth is so taxed during the school day that administrators wait until after-hours to perform some of their computer tasks.
For students, the tech limitations can breed some cleverness. Garner, an easy-to-smile eighth-grader, calls himself the community’s top “hacker,” in part because he has learned that he can make calls with his smartphone by placing it on a ceiling fan — one place where it gets occasional service — and connecting it with Bluetooth headphones. But he also said he has some anxiety about what happens when he enters ninth grade — a point when students from Monroe Intermediate head off to high school in a neighboring and more populous county and tend to realize that they are further behind than they expected.
“The rest of the world has this,” Garner said of the Internet.
Even though Monroe Intermediate was named in 2013-2014 by the state as one of six “torchbearer” schools that was beating the odds and “educating students of poverty,” few students who grow up in Little Peach Tree move beyond high school, Monroe Intermediate principal Betty Madison said. Some are bewildered by the assignments or too ashamed to admit what they don’t know, Barnes said. What is a Google Doc? What is a jump drive? How do I do my homework if I don’t have Internet at home?
“This is just the real world now,” Barnes said. “These are expected skills. And they are drowning.”
The Internet outages at Monroe Intermediate can last from minutes to weeks, and when they start, an administrator from the principal’s office speaks up over the intercom.
“We’re down,” a scratchy voice said on a recent morning, and Shirley Pate, the school’s technology coordinator, told her fourth-grade students to power off their devices — anything that might be sucking up bandwidth. She asked them to wait for a moment while she did some trouble-shooting.
“Can I get a book out of the library?” one of the students asked.
Another opened his backpack and removed a stack of plastic dinosaurs.
Pate walked over to a computer and ran a speed test.
Behind her, students spent the last 10 minutes before the bell recreating the Jurassic era.
“You bit my tail, get out of here,” said Tomquarious Morrissette, 10.
“Mmm, fresh ankylosaurus,” said Jarquiese McCaskey, 10. “Bones and all.”
They debated for a moment about the fate of the ankylosaur and decided it had died. Morrissette slowly raised the plant-eater from the table.
“He’s going up to heaven,” Morrissette said.
The speed test finished: The download speed was 0.76 megabits per second, less than one-fiftieth of what Verizon or Comcast offers residential customers in the District.
Pate took a closer look at the screen.
“Oh, look now!” she said. “Not bad.”