Life without a reliable internet remains a daily struggle for millions of Americans


Three days and an hour after the start of the 2021-22 school year, the internet shut down at the Owhyhee Combined School in northern Nevada.

Teachers rushed to recreate their lesson plans and presentations, and were unable to register attendance.

“We have no way of ensuring that students are in the right classes at the right time,” said Lynn Manning-John, vice principal of K-12 school.

“We had a student showing symptoms of COVID this morning, so finding this student’s data in order to reach his family is also something we can’t do because we don’t have the internet.”

The face-to-face classes had just resumed after a year of mainly distance learning. But for Owyhee’s students, instructors, and administrators, this was not an entirely new problem. The community has never had reliable high speed internet access.

Before the pandemic, they could just wait for connectivity to return, Manning-John said. But school materials and systems have been moved online to enable distance learning. And internet problems also affected the last year of online school – many students were unable to log into their classes from home.

The town of Owyhee is about 100 miles from the nearest towns with services, requiring a 1.5 hour road trip to do groceries, for example. It is located on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, home to the Shoshone-Paiute tribes, in northern Nevada and southern Idaho.

Manning-John said their remote location has made it difficult for them to get online for years.

“We want fiber, we want 5G, we want the latest technology, but we’re so isolated, it’s a challenge for [telecommunications companies] to get their employees to come here, ”she said.

The reservation has only one cell phone tower and one wired Internet provider, according to Mary Howard, the reservation’s computer systems administrator. But that internet connection is slow and unreliable, and Manning-John said it doesn’t even reach his house. She and her five children use their phone’s hotspots to connect to the Internet at home.

This has made working and studying from home a challenge over the past year and a half. Other Owyhee students faced an even greater challenge, Manning-John said.

“[My kids], their mom works at school. Their mother can afford the Internet. Their mother could afford to have a phone with personal hotspot service included in our plan, “she said.” We are the exception.

Broadband and the digital divide

The pandemic has laid bare the importance of having a high-speed internet connection, as many Americans have been forced to live their lives online. Yet tens of millions of people across the country, especially in rural areas and tribal lands, lack the kind of fast or reliable connection they need for things like work, school and telehealth.

President Biden’s recently signed $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure bill aims to alleviate the problem by setting aside $ 65 billion for broadband investments. Its largest allocations would give states $ 42.5 billion to fund broadband infrastructure, as well as $ 14.25 billion in subsidies to help low-income households access the Internet.

Lawmakers consulted with Kathryn de Wit, project manager for the Pew Charitable Trusts Broadband Access Initiative, and her team when drafting the legislation. She said the plan was a “big down payment” for connecting underserved households – in part because it also relied on the Federal Communications Commission to better determine exactly who did not have high-speed Internet access.

The FCC estimated that 14.5 million people in the United States lived in areas without broadband access at the end of 2019, while data aggregation company BroadbandNow estimated that number at 42 million. The White House says 30 million.

In 2020, separate legislation asked the FCC to update its broadband access cards. Tired of waiting for these updates, some states already have deployed their own methods to track broadband access. The new legislation requires the FCC to complete its map updates by making funding conditional on the submission of those updates – and also stipulates a process by which states can dispute the FCC maps with their own.

Then there are questions about what really constitutes high internet speeds. The FCC defines broadband as an Internet connection with minimum speeds of 25 megabits per second for download and 3 Mbps for download. De Wit notes that these minimum speeds may be insufficient for the level of demand observed during the pandemic.

“What is it [means] is that a person in the household can access the internet, make purchases, just surf the web, send emails with limited interference, ”said de Wit.“ As soon as you have more users who are on this connection, which perform more complex tasks such as, for example, , connect with doctors, talk or participate in education, the quality of that connection will deteriorate, ”she said.

De Wit further points out that the FCC’s tally is based on the number of households that have access to a broadband connection with the maximum speeds. announcement by providers – not the actual speeds they receive.

The infrastructure bill would not change the 25/3 definition of broadband, but would require grant recipients to provide a minimum service of 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps download.

What is clear even with uneven data available is that most of the people without broadband access live in rural, remote, low-income and tribal lands. Low population density and geographic barriers may discourage a service provider from offering services in this region.

“It’s important to remember that we are talking about a for-profit industry,” said de Wit. “So when we look at communities that are not densely populated, perhaps where income levels are lower, where providers don’t see a clear business case, then it is up to the public sector to identify the opportunities to encourage investment in these communities. “

In places where broadband is available, some households may not be able to afford the services. A Pew Inquiry conducted earlier this year found that 45% of respondents who did not have broadband cited the monthly cost as a reason for not having it.

De Wit said the new FCC data would not only help understand where broadband access is needed most, but also illustrate where there may be a connection available, but not affordable.

“The digital divide is really complicated, and so where we would like to see additional support is for state and local leaders to collect the data they need to illustrate the number of unserved households in communities. which are ‘served’ on the federal database, ”she said.

Waiting for a solution in the Duck Valley

The infrastructure bill establishes $ 2 billion in funding specifically for tribal communities – Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Hawaiian Natives. This gives Manning-John reassurance that the tribal areas will not be fighting against states and municipalities for federal money.

In the meantime, she only updates her phone when she’s staying in an out-of-town hotel and can connect to Wi-Fi for a few hours. She sees parents parking near the school to connect to the internet when the school switches to online learning to limit the spread of the virus. She sees her Grade 11 daughter taking online classes powered by a cellphone hotspot – and she longs for a day without so many connection issues.

Next, she looks at the land in the Duck Valley Reservation and remembers why she chose to stay.

“We need to remember, once again, as we go through some of the 21st century’s most Internet-less problems, that our ancestors put us in the right place so that when it all stops, we still have our beautiful land and everything we need to survive, ”she said.

Still, she acknowledges that surviving the modern era – especially during a pandemic – is nearly impossible on the reserve without high-speed internet.

“Our isolation has historically allowed us to preserve our language, our culture and our traditions, and that has served us well,” she said. “However, this is of no use to us in the age of the Internet where we need up-to-date, late-breaking information; we need to be able to disseminate information and instructions.”

This story is part of our All things Considered series on the President’s recently signed infrastructure bill. Alejandra Marquez Janse and Amy Isackson produced this story for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon contributed to its adaptation to the web.

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