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Image credit above: Wi-Fi issues are far from over in rural parts of the country. (Adobe Stock photo)
Katie Pyatt recalls the start of the pandemic when her rural home’s Wi-Fi in Centerview, Missouri, went down. Her five children were homeschooled and would lose their progress in assignments.
Her children now go to school in person, but her internet situation has not improved.
She now pays $178 a month for 10 megabits per second (Mbps) service through CenturyLink.
“It’s our only option,” Pyatt said. “This company owes us money because we’re paying for something we’re not getting.”
The percentage of rural Americans with fixed broadband has increased from 61.5% of the population in 2015 to 82.7% of the population in 2019. (Broadband is considered speeds of at least 25 Mbps in download and 3 Mbps upload.)
Although more rural residents have had access to broadband in recent years, many, like Pyatt and his family, still feel neglected in the country.
Recognizing the need to bridge the digital divide, the federal government has allocated $20.4 billion to Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). In 2020, the funds were auctioned off to companies that submitted bids to improve their networks. Over the past year, service companies have begun to implement their network plans to connect rural communities.
Landmark funding to address the problem has been slow to roll out, leaving many rural residents wondering if it will actually reach them.
“We live near the freeway, so we don’t really live off anything,” Pyatt laughed. “You can’t broadcast, you can’t do anything. Anytime you have a 3 year old who wants to watch Curious George all the time, it’s nice to have the option (to stream rather than watch live TV).
Even with two modems â one upstairs and one downstairs â Pyatt’s kids can usually only load about 10 minutes of a show they want to stream before it fails. It takes his eldest son three days to download a video game.
In addition to the cost, it is a big headache.
When she and her family first moved to their rural residence, it took four or five visits from her service provider, CenturyLink, before her two modems were properly connected and turned on.
âThe techs that even work for them came out and said there were too many people on that one service, they were just overloading it,â Pyatt said. “So your download speed, internet or Wi-Fi speed is going to be slow.”
Spectrum, a communications service provider under Charter Communications, won $1.2 billion in the rural broadband funding auction. The company is currently working to implement its $5 billion project to connect 1 million locations in rural communities in 24 states.
Recently, the company offered “gigabit” service to 140 homes and businesses in rural Johnson County, Missouri, with plans to expand further into the county and surrounding areas.
“Our commitment helps deliver the high-value broadband, mobile, TV and voice services now available in more areas of Johnson County,” said Matt Brown, vice president of construction at Spectrum, in a statement. “We provide superior connectivity to local residents and small businesses at very competitive prices, backed by an organization committed to craftsmanship and service.”
Pyatt had Spectrum service when she lived in Kansas City, several years before moving to her current country home.
“Every time they (Spectrum) come back to the area, I’m going to throw them a party,” Pyatt said.
Due to the sprawling nature of rural areas, serving residents and businesses is much more complicated than simply running wires.
A Spectrum representative said these projects require months of in-depth network design. Usually the process involves an employee physically going to each utility pole and taking measurements.
Once the network design is in place, it must be built. This means either building new utility poles and connecting lines to existing ones, or sometimes installing lines underground.
The process is labor intensive, which is why the Rural Broadband Funding Program has been important in incentivizing service providers to embark on these types of projects.
The end goal of the program is for everyone to have access to broadband, currently defined as 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed.
Spectrum Connectivity provides residential service with download speeds of up to 200 Mbps, depending on customer plans, although even the cheapest plan offers speeds above the minimum broadband benchmark of 25/3 Mbps. Businesses can get service that delivers up to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps).
The Federal Communications Commission”Broadband Deployment Reportargues that 25/3 Mbps speeds are an appropriate benchmark to aim for, while acknowledging arguments about the increased need for faster broadband as more telecommunications take place in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic .
Pyatt’s 10 Mbps service consistently underperforms. She recently discovered that her Hulu streaming subscription was basically useless. When she called to report loading issues, she was told her internet was too slow to work with the streaming platform.
“Dial-up was faster than that,” laughed Pyatt. “It’s ridiculous.”
CenturyLink said in an emailed statement that it was working under a 10-year plan to bring gigabit service via fiber-optic connectivity to as many corners as “economically feasible.” Like Spectrum, it won a substantial sum at the RDOF auction for the project.
Just east of Centerview in the Pittsville area, Rayna and Wes Rains have even worse connectivity.
They also have CenturyLink, but at only 1.5 Mbps, it’s not good for anything other than checking news online.
âWe’re glad they (CenturyLink) are trying. But basicallyâ¦ there’s nothing you can do,â Wes Rains said. “But I don’t want to be too critical because they’re the only ones who did anything.”
Not too long ago, Wes Rains saw the Spectrum team mapping the area. He thought they were joking when employees said they were bringing services to his area.
“We’re used to hearing government or politicians or whatever talk about infrastructure money, but it never comes out here,” Wes Rains said. âIt would be nice if some of the money for infrastructure actually reached rural areas.
“Not that we’re complaining,” Rayna Rains interjected.
The Rains have chosen to live where they live, and their country life is nothing short of bucolic.
From the rural property, Rayna Rains maintains a colorful flower garden and raises chickens to sell the colorful eggs to her neighbors and family members. In the summer, they grow sweet corn to sell at the farmer’s market.
When the flowers and hens go dormant during the colder months of the year, both stay indoors. They stream gardening movies and YouTube videos through Wi-Fi hotspots on their cellphones.
It’s not ideal – there’s a finite amount they can use each month, and they can’t plug in smart devices – but it works.
Even in Kansas City, a city that has been equipped with gigabit technology for nearly 10 years, a recent study by Hotdog.com found that 11.2% of metropolitan area households use cellular data as their only form of internet.
Cellular data works, but cannot support the same internet usage as broadband.
This would allow, for example, Rayna Rains to work from home.
She could spend the 90 minutes she currently spends commuting to work in Kansas City to spend more time with her chickens and flowers.
“I think there’s a stereotype of people living in the areas we live in,” Wes Rains said. “There’s a lot that would love the ease of streaming, Netflix and Hulu or Sling or whatever.”
As soon as Spectrum becomes available, the Rains have announced their intention to sign up for the service.
The company’s total construction plan is expected to be completed in 2027 and is expected to connect more than one million rural Americans to broadband. For those who are interested in the program, they can visit Spectrum rural construction site to see if their location is in the plan.
Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.