America’s Terrible Internet Is Making Quarantine Worse

At 8 a.m. Pacific time last Wednesday, I joined David Anderson’s 12th-grade government class at Live Oak High by clicking on a Zoom link.

Because California suffered a surge in coronavirus cases this summer, students in Live Oak, a town about 50 miles north of Sacramento, will be learning virtually for the foreseeable future. Both Anderson and his students seemed nervous about how it would go. At 8:03, only eight of the 24 students had logged on, despite the fact that Anderson’s “classroom expectations” sheet requested that everyone “log in to class on time and prepared every day.”

It might not have been the kids’ fault. Many students are poor in this rural chunk of the Sacramento Valley. The school ordered Wi-Fi hotspots for the students, but they won’t be available until August 22. In a class Anderson taught that afternoon, one boy’s video kept freezing from a slow connection. At the high point during the class I observed, 20 of 24 students had joined the Zoom session, which, Anderson told me later, is “better than expected.”

Not all distance learning in rural areas is functioning even this smoothly, thanks to America’s notoriously unequal internet access. In the COVID-19 era, life has moved to the internet, but not everyone has it. As many districts start virtually this fall, some teachers say they’re fighting to ensure that all of their students can log into class each day. Their struggles are just one example of the consequences of America’s failure to get all of its citizens online before this uniquely internet-dependent time.

Outside of Fresno, Rachel Cooper estimates that 20 percent of her eighth-grade students don’t have internet at home, and 20 percent have spotty internet. “It’s rough,” she says. Some kids are using their phones to log into class, but the screens are too small to do work on. Some kids’ internet cuts out in the middle of class, and others don’t log on at all.

The school hasn’t been able to provide hotspots to all of its students yet, Cooper says. A Wi-Fi–equipped bus is supposed to drive around to areas where disconnected students live, but social distancing would require that students sit outside of it to do their work. “I’ve had several students already say that they were really nervous they were going to fall farther behind in a specific subject because they think distance learning is going to be really difficult,” Cooper told me.

How did such an advanced country leave so many people technologically behind? Experts and former Federal Communications Commission officials describe a federal government that has neglected to treat broadband as a public utility, instead relying on the largely self-regulated internet industry to provide service wherever it wanted, for the price of its choosing. The United States government has historically not seen fast internet as something everyone should have, like it does water or even phone service, and the consequences are becoming frighteningly apparent. “I was responsible for this, and I failed,” Tom Wheeler, who served as chairman of the FCC under President Barack Obama, told me recently.

For starters, the FCC has failed to figure out where, exactly, the unconnected live, because the maps of broadband access the agency relies on are generated by internet providers and are extremely inaccurate. The FCC estimates that 19 million Americans don’t have a fast internet connection, but as CityLab’s Linda Poon has written, the true number may be more than double the official figure because of poor data gathering. According to the Pew Research Center, about 15 percent of all households with school-age children lack a high-speed internet connection. Some of these families live in areas that broadband providers don’t service, but others simply can’t afford the broadband that runs right outside their doorstep. In fact, some estimates suggest that the majority of people who don’t have internet actually live in cities and suburbs, not in rural areas. (In response to a request for comment, an FCC spokesperson said, “The Commission is working on a broad effort to collect more precise data from service providers so we can better identify where broadband gaps exist and vastly improve the maps we inherited from the previous Administration.”)

In Cooper’s school district, for instance, there are some areas that internet providers haven’t hooked up, and others where getting internet would be too expensive for students’ families. “You pay $200, $300, and your internet’s still horrible,” she said.

Even in normal times, this digital divide holds back the unconnected in innumerable ways. Broadband access tends to boost local economies, because many companies run on the internet and employers tend to take job applications only online. Many areas that lack internet also lack doctors, but telemedicine can’t reach places where few people have a connection strong enough for FaceTime. People without internet might have trouble accessing news and information, which has steadily migrated online. In areas where broadband exists, but not everyone can afford it, teachers still assign homework online, and only some students can complete it.

A lack of internet access can be a source of embarrassment, says Sharon Strover, a communications professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Many people are acutely aware of their inability to quickly whip out a phone that can connect to the internet without thinking about how much it’s gonna cost.”

In countries such as South Korea and Sweden, governments built out broadband infrastructure and opened it up to internet providers to use, much like the interstate highway system in the U.S., says Roberto Gallardo, the director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development. But the U.S. mostly left this up to the internet companies themselves, and parts of the country got overlooked. Typically, internet companies say there aren’t enough customers in certain areas for them to feel financially incentivized to go there. This occasionally leads to what advocates calldigital redlining,” in which wealthy areas get online, while lower-income neighborhoods don’t. Similar to residential redlining, this has a disparate racial impact: Black Americans are less likely than white Americans to have a broadband connection at home.

“When I worked at the FCC, I fielded phone calls from consumers who would say, ‘Why is broadband deployed two blocks from me, but when I call the provider, they say, “It’s going to cost us tens of thousands of dollars to bring it to your neighborhood?”’” says Chris Lewis, who worked on broadband access in the Obama administration and is now the president of Public Knowledge, an advocacy group for internet access. Meanwhile, in about two dozen states, it’s illegal or very difficult for cities to build out their own internet networks, in large part because of lobbying by internet companies.

When the government does entice internet providers to go into underserved areas, the companies aren’t held accountable if they fail to connect all of the people they promised to. For instance, CenturyLink received $505 million a year for six years from the FCC to expand rural broadband. The company did not meet its targets, yet it was not sanctioned by the FCC, and it is still eligible for a new round of federal funding this October. (In response to a request for comment, CenturyLink said, “The FCC’s CAF II program rules provide flexibility to address real-world challenges that arise as rural networks are built out. CenturyLink is on track to achieve full deployment in all states well within the time period specified in the FCC’s rules.”)

The reins on internet companies got even looser during the Trump administration. In 2017, the FCC gave up what little command it had over internet providers when it voted to repeal its net-neutrality regulations. Now “the FCC doesn’t have the legal authority to ensure that everyone is connected to broadband,” says Lewis, from Public Knowledge. (At the time, the agency defended its decision as “helping consumers and promoting competition.”)

As a result, by some measures, the digital divide is growing even as the internet becomes more essential. In 2019, a quarter of adults earning less than $30,000 annually relied on their smartphones alone for internet access, up from 12 percent in 2013. Many of these individuals are forced to fill out job applications, school forms, and other paperwork on a five-inch screen.

Several broadband advocates told me it’s too late in the pandemic to try to dig cables into every American’s yard. Instead, Public Knowledge and other groups support inserting a $50 internet-access subsidy into the next COVID-19 relief bill. But that package has stalled out in the Senate, so the future of the subsidy is uncertain.

In the COVID-19 era, all of these failures have come crashing down on teachers who now rely on the internet to do their jobs. The charity site Donors Choose has filled up with teachers who are begging for Wi-Fi hotspots for their students. Strover, the UT-Austin professor, says one common solution for those who don’t have internet is to check out hotspots from public libraries. But during the pandemic, many libraries have been closed.

Students who don’t have internet are offered paper schoolwork packets instead, but as one ESL teacher in rural North Carolina pointed out to me, “not everybody can just read the instructions and then learn it. Then you wouldn’t need a teacher, right?” (She asked to remain anonymous because she was concerned about her job.)

To some teachers, internet access is another domain of the pandemic in which the government has failed to act, leaving everyday Americans scrambling for stopgap solutions. “It feels like a lot of times right now it’s my job as a teacher to find a way for [students] to connect to the internet,” Cooper told me. “And I don’t think that’s my job. Policy makers should have made it possible for students to connect.”

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