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Despite pandemic promises, many rural students still lack fast internet

Allen Fort is the longtime schools superintendent in Taliaferro County, a rural county in Georgia where many students and other residents don’t have access to high-speed internet. (Nick Fouriezos/Open Campus)
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It was February 2020, and Allen Fort was fed up.

He was tired, he said, of all the “yak, yak, yak” without any meaningful change to help poor, rural school districts like his. “Haven’t we ‘talked’ enough?” the longtime schools superintendent of Taliaferro County, Ga., wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Fort was planning to retire after more than four decades as an educator. Then the pandemic erupted. He stayed.

And once again, there was talk about rural needs: this time, the need for internet access.

There was some action. The private sector offered their help. Congress set aside billions of dollars for rural communities through the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This spring, the Biden administration announced everything from a “Rural Infrastructure Playbook” to a $45 billion “Internet for All” initiative, promising to bring “affordable, reliable, high-speed internet to everyone in America.”

But experts say those efforts still won’t be enough. There are hidden barriers: hotspots that don’t work as advertised, rural broadband grants that don’t include affordability in their equations. Then there are not so hidden ones. Challenging topographies, like thick forests or remote mountains, that don’t provide an easy high speed solution. Faulty maps that leave officials unable to answer the much simpler question: Who has access, and who doesn’t?

The result: Students in the poorest and furthest reaches of America — places that, like Taliaferro County, need high-speed internet the most — remain disconnected, leaving them further and further behind their more urban peers.

As e-commerce and internet services have become key parts of the national economy, rural communities have increasingly been left out.

That divide has also widened education gaps, with rural students twice as likely to say they lacked the technology they needed to complete coursework. Students without internet access or reliant on a cellphone were generally half a grade point behind their connected peers, according to a 2020 study, a deficit that had ripple effects “that may last an entire life.”

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Fort and his colleagues were well aware that the education gap was widening between urban students and their own students in Taliaferro, where the majority of the county’s 1,558 residents are Black and nearly a quarter live under the federal poverty level.

School bus drivers drove hour-and-a-half routes, often interrupted by wild hogs or loose cattle, passing out sandwiches and picking up paper homework assignments along the way. Each of the county’s roughly 200 students were provided Dell laptops and mobile hotspots, while officials extended the school’s WiFi into the parking lot to enable online instruction and Zoom classes.

However, the hotspots operated by national cellphone companies didn’t provide the coverage they promised.

“It’s a weak signal that you can maybe call 911 with, but not anything that you can put computers on for two or three students in a household,” Fort says, after his district fruitlessly switched among Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile.

For more than a year of remote instruction, Taliaferro students such as Geronta Bailey, 18, who graduated this month, were disconnected. From their classes. From their classmates. From society.

“It’s so quiet. No games. The TV is broken,” Bailey says. “I tried to do my work online. But once the T-Mobile hotspot got turned off, I basically wasn’t able to go to school at all.”

Even after in-person instruction returned, Bailey finished his homework between classes because he still didn’t have home internet.

“We should have WiFi for free. Because it’s something we need,” he says. “Of course, we need a lot of things. Food. Water.”

Taliaferro doesn’t have a fresh grocery store, although it has three different dollar stores with dry and frozen goods across from the school. About two-thirds of county residents rely on private wells for water and individual septic tanks for sewage.

Bailey says he doesn’t think college is for him. Like many of his classmates, he is considering working at the Amazon fulfillment center nearly an hour away, or taking up the offer from the Army recruiter who knocked on his door a few weeks back.

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Taliaferro’s most ambitious effort to expand internet access was a partnership to test new broadband technology with the University of Augusta and the Georgia Cyber Center, a unit of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

“A perfect intersection of innovation,” Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (R) called it at an April 2021 news conference outside Taliaferro’s lone school.

The technology was intended to overcome the county’s low population density and ample tree cover and to create a model for providing rural internet that the state and nation could follow.

“If they could figure out how to do it there, then they could use it as a template to go pretty much anywhere else in the state,” says Graham Castleton, a Utah-based connectivity consultant contracted by the Cyber Center to test internet options for the county.

Castleton began immediately, placing a transmitter at the chicken feed plant and transponders at the school, the courthouse and the local barbecue joint.

Eventually his report recommended actions, including building three new cell towers, to connect nearly every one of the county’s 660 households with 75/20 mbps internet. Those speeds are strong enough, Castleton says, to allow multiple users to stream classes and work meetings effectively.

However, it would cost an estimated $1.5 million upfront, plus $200,000 annually — a monthly rate of about $25 per household.

That was a daunting price tag for a county whose entire 2022 budget was just $4.3 million.

Taliaferro appears to be the exact type of community the Biden administration and Congress have set aside billions for — more than $400 billion between the two major spending packages signed last year.

However, rural locations like Taliaferro face another major hurdle: Despite years of talking about bringing broadband to rural areas, the federal government doesn’t actually know where those areas are.

The Federal Communications Commission’s broadband deployment maps are “broken,” policy experts and lawmakers agree, relying largely on self-reported data that incentivizes providers to overstate their coverage.

The FCC counts an entire census block as connected if an ISP services even just one household in that block with a minimum speed experts say is too slow anyway: 25/3 mbps internet, enough for, at most, a single user to stream content.

“I worked five years at a university cafeteria, and I’m thinking about what would have happened if I said, ‘I served one meal, so I can go home now,’ to the other 800 people in line,’” says Josh Seidemann, vice president of policy at the Rural Broadband Association.

Lawmakers have known the FCC maps were a problem for years. But it wasn’t until March 2020, as coronavirus closures began, that Congress passed a bill to improve the maps.

After multiple delays (the FCC now says the maps will be ready by the fall), some states, including Georgia, have started making their own. The delay is holding up billions of dollars of last year’s approved broadband deployment funds, leaving countless rural communities in limbo.

In February, the Taliaferro school district and the Cyber Center applied for the ReConnect Program, the major Agriculture Department rural broadband grant, which partially relies on those FCC maps.

However, they were quickly deemed ineligible. While the county awaited the results of their long-delayed Cyber Center study, the local internet service provider Relyant Communications won a grant to build its own fiber network in the region — charging households four times as much for slower speeds than the Cyber Center proposal. The USDA doesn’t consider affordability when determining if a region is “covered,” a factor some experts say should be included.

Jameshia Lawson, another recent Taliaferro graduate, used that internet to apply to colleges from home, after her family upgraded from the cellphone hotspots they previously used.

“When we were doing school from home, I wasn’t really getting my work done. I would sleep,” Lawson says. “Now the internet is fast, and I can apply for colleges.”

Still, many Taliaferro residents can’t afford the Relyant internet, with school staff estimating that at least 40 percent of students still don’t have reliable home internet.

In mid-May, the Biden administration announced a deal to provide $30 per month plans for low-income households from 20 major internet providers who already cover about 80 percent of the U.S. population. But even that won’t help Taliaferro, because Relyant’s parent company isn’t on that list.

The internet providers that can’t afford to follow the White House plan disproportionately serve the most rural, remote parts of America — like this Georgia county.

And so, two years later, Allen Fort is still fed up.

Sitting in the school’s computer lab, the superintendent points to a small foam cup of water in the middle of the table.

“They’re not lying. You do have a signal now,” he says.

But for Fort, it’s like having 10 people at the table, and everyone is thirsty. Sure, they all have access to the water in that cup. But as soon as one person starts drinking from it?

“It runs out.”

Nick Fouriezos is a national reporter covering rural higher education for the nonprofit newsroom Open Campus.

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