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As social distancing forces us online, rural America is being left behind

Maya Shwayder

It’s hard to get internet service at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss, a tribal councilwoman for the 426-person Havasupai Nation that inhabits the reservation in Supai, Arizona, has had to learn how to refract signal off of “whatever canyon wall looks flattest” in order to get an internet connection.

Taking advantage of free Wi-Fi from the parking lot of a Starbucks or a McDonald’s (a common technique used by underserved populations) would require an 8-mile hike by either foot or horse, and then a 2-plus-hour drive to Kingman, Williams, or Flagstaff, the closest towns, Watahomigie-Corliss told Digital Trends.

“It’s not an option,” she said. 

The lack of reliable internet service has been an issue for years, Watahomigie-Corliss said. The coronavirus pandemic has made it worse.

With mass social distancing rules in effect to prevent the spread of the deadly disease, officially known as COVID-19, Americans have been forced to put many aspects of their lives online, from work and education to social gatherings. This push has hit remote and underserved areas like the Havasupai Nation — where the canyon walls block too much of the signal to use videoconferencing software and telehealth services or do homework — especially hard.

Navajo country

Out in Navajo country in the Southwestern U.S., Candice Mendez’s internet was already spotty and slow. It’s been reduced to mere kilobytes since the pandemic pushed people to use local home networks nearly nonstop.

“I can barely get to Google Docs or Drive, or update my website” Mendez told Digital Trends. “It just sits there. It’s slower than dial-up.” Her options for an upgrade are scarce: Verizon doesn’t have towers nearby, DirectTV is too slow, and even the Navajo community wireless network doesn’t reach her house. She’s stuck with what she has if she wants to keep running a business on the reservation. 

Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss, a tribal councilwoman in Arizona, installs a hot spot at the bottom of a canyon. Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss

For both Mendez and Watahomigie-Corliss, buying WiFi hot spots is expensive and ultimately useless without the required infrastructure to set up a network.

Digital divide

More than 20 million Americans already did not have adequate internet access before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Dr. Nicol Turner Lee at the Center for Technology Innovation. Now, with more than 50 million kids at home who all need access for homework and school, “the digital divide looks like other inequalities we have not quite solved,” Dr. Turner Lee said. 

The problem could even be worse.

“We are overcounting the rate of service in rural America,” Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel told the Brookings Institute at a livestreamed event. Rosenworcel said those estimates assume that if one household has a connection in a particular district, then the entire district must be connected.

A digital divide between connected and underserved areas has always been present, but this pandemic has highlighted it, she added.

Rosenworcel, along with Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Rep. Grace Meng (D-New York), have sounded the alarm on what she called the “homework gap” — the ability of children to access sufficiently fast internet speeds to complete their schoolwork outside of school.

In an op-ed in The Verge in mid-March, Rosenworcel argued that the FCC should send Wi-Fi hot spots to schools to loan out to students if the schools shut down. Booker and Meng wrote a letter to President Donald Trump asking that $1 billion be set aside as an emergency fund to purchase hot spots, and 35 other senators later penned a letter asking for another $2 billion for Wi-Fi hot spots for libraries and schools.

More challenges to connecting

Bernard Borghei, the senior vice president for operations and co-founder of Vertical Bridge, the largest private owner of telecommunication infrastructure in the U.S., told Digital Trends that even some of his staff who live outside major metropolitan areas have reported their broadband speeds are down.

“This really shows where infrastructure is lagging,” Borghei said. “People are beginning to experience more challenges to connect, even in well built-out cities.”

“A lot of people in rural areas are now having to upgrade their plans and pay higher monthly fees,” Borghei said. “In these types of tough economic times, it puts more pressure on people to pay even more to log on, just so kids can do schoolwork and they can work at home. This digital divide definitely comes to the forefront of what we’re experiencing today.”

Borghei did praise the FCC for moving quickly and letting carriers deploy more spectrum across the country, but he said most of that was being eaten up in the urban areas.

“At the end of the day, these [internet service providers and wireless companies] are for-profit businesses,” he told Digital Trends. “Expanding into this vast country is not cheap. It needs public-private partnerships and will take some time. I can’t tell you it’s an afterthought, but in crisis mode like this, unfortunately we’re seeing this selective society unfold in front of our eyes.”

That “selective society” business model is keenly felt in rural areas that might not be a priority. Mark Buell, the regional director for North America for the Internet Society, said the return on investment for remote communities is just not high enough to justify deploying access for a lot of service providers. In emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic, those people get left even further behind, Buell said.

“People are relying on mobile phones for access, and that gets expensive quickly,” he told Digital Trends. “If there are only 300 people in a remote area, a big internet service provider won’t build the infrastructure. The internet won’t get out there.”

Policy problems

One organization, MuralNet, has been working since 2017 to bring the internet out to rural places like Native reservations by helping specific nations establish their own community networks.

“We had communities that were paying $1,400 per month for 50 megabytes of data, split among everyone,”  said Mariel Triggs, MuralNet’s CEO. “Some communities up in Alaska were paying $30,000 per month.”

Policy has often been the hardest challenge to overcome, Triggs said.

“The FCC has been helpful,” Triggs said. “They had all these experimental special temporary authorities (STAs), with partners that help set up networks all over the place. But then they had to turn them off when those STAs expired. And I’m thinking, now that you’ve realized this need is dire, can’t you just flip the switch and turn them on again?”

One success story in this struggle to bridge the digital divide comes from the Nation of Hawaii, a sovereign nation on the island of Oahu.

“We lack infrastructure on our part of the island,” said Brandon Maka’awa’awa, the deputy head of state for the Nation of Hawaii. “Most people got the internet through satellite or mobile phones.”

“We didn’t have fiber optics or anything. Our service, Hawaiian Telecomm — the farthest they could go was the first house, but we have 20 houses here.”

With the help of Mural Net and the Internet Society, the community set up a fiber-optic network in November 2019.

The Nation of Hawai’i shows that this is a surmountable problem. But that problem must be addressed, advocates say.

“What this [pandemic] will do is demonstrate where the communities who have the most need are,” said Buell. “We are hoping that at the end of this, the criteria for funding will be reassessed and focused on the area of greatest need.”