(TNS) — When David Black, scrambling to get his corn crop into the ground, tried to download a new planting program at the same time his son, home from college because of the coronavirus stay-at-home order was trying to do some online course work, the Charles City County, Va., family’s recently upgraded internet service couldn’t cope.
It slowed to a crawl -- and with rain in the forecast for the next few days, Black couldn't afford to wait. His son had to set aside his studies for a bit.
Rural Virginia isn’t plugged into the digital world the way the state’s cities and suburbs are. But rural Virginians need to tap in, whether they are farmers, like Black, who want to use GPS and market data to boost their harvests, or home-based businesses, like Terri Blanchard Cook’s cabinet-making operation in Aylett. The coronavirus was widened this digital divide even further -- and it has forced the state to postpone spending the $16 million a year that the General Assembly had planned for expanding rural broadband.
The COVID-19 epidemic has made that even more necessary, and even more difficult. Schools have gone online and many employees work from home. Those stores and restaurants that are open encourage customers to order online, whether for curbside pickup or delivery. People running low on food and money turn to the net to look for foodbank distributions. The epidemic even put a halt to a statewide plan to pay for expanded internet access.
“I am now working from home and my only internet access is the three Verizon jetpacks I use, which are slow and spotty but so far, fingers crossed, they get the job done,” said Kimberly Brake Patterson, a King and Queen County parent.
“County and government officials have to wake up and realize Internet is not a luxury but an essential to life just as much as running water and electricity. Everyday life is managed electronically now, from communicating with healthcare providers, ordering refill prescriptions, paying bills and even ordering groceries,” she said.
A Third Lack High Speed Access
While 98 percent of residents and businesses in Virginia’s cities and suburbs have access to high-speed internet -- defined as service offering download speeds of 25 megabits per second or more -- nearly one-third of rural Virginians do not. Roughly 11 percent have no access to any internet service, according to the 2019 Commonwealth Connect report on Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposal for universal broadband access.
“Our son is a junior and doing homework at home is very hard. Something that should take 2-3 hours to do turns into 10-12 hours because of the connection. Last week assignments he finished right at midnight on Friday. We pay over $80 monthly and it’s not even unlimited!,” said Tammy Nelson, who lives in King William County.
The digital divide is a matter of infrastructure and money. And while it’s an infrastructure issue in much of rural Virginia, there are still plenty of city-dwellers on the wrong side of the digital divide, despite that 98 percent access figure for cities and suburbs, says Newport News Mayor McKinley Price.
As the newly-elected president of the African American Mayors Association, Price says he wants to make the digital divide a priority issue for that organization. He said he expects Newport News will use funds from its Choice Neighborhoods Initiative to make sure families in the targeted Marshall-Ridley neighborhood get internet access.
“The coronavirus has really brought this home ... it’s just a whammy," Price said, noting that African Americans and other minorities have been far more likely to lose their jobs, to miss out on schools’ online classes and to fall ill or die as the virus hits home.
The Last Mile
For Kelly Crowley, the digital divide looks like the quarter-mile driveway her Gloucester County home shares with her in-laws’ place and another neighbor. Cox Communications says it would cost $10,000 to link those homes to the nearest line - a quarter-mile away.
Even before the epidemic, her husband would stay late at work to complete his online course work in criminal justice studies and sociology. These days, her daughter has to drive down to the high school to do her school work. Trying to do much else -- ordering some necessity online or looking up information -- exhausts Crowley’s cell phone data plan pretty quickly.
And, because her phone service isn’t great, that happens when she heads into town to shop for herself and her in-laws -- their one outing, a trip to the store, is off-limits now because of the family’s concerns about COVID-19.
Gloucester’s assistant county administrator, Carol Steele, estimates that there are about 2,000 homes and businesses that don’t have broadband internet connections. There are fairly large pockets in the northern part of the county, Ware Neck and along the King and Queen County lines, but there are places, even in the county’s densely populated Gloucester Point area that go without.
Often, but not always, that’s a matter of a long driveway.
Basically, it’s a version of what many rural Virginians see when a storm knocks out power lines -- long connections to only one or two customers, what utility officials call their last mile services, cost a lot to set up and a lot to fix when they go down, at least in comparison to the revenue an electric utility, phone company or water and sewer authority is likely to collect.
Gloucester wants to take advantage of a state program that offers grants to local governments that can team up with a private service provider to connect some of those last miles. Sometimes, that’s a matter of a wire or fiber optic line. Gloucester’s looking at setting up a ring of connected wireless towers, which Steele says should cover most, but not quite all, of the county residents who can’t get broadband now. It has pledged $500,000 of county funds and is seeking $1.45 million in grants as well as a $777,000 investment from a private partner -- although Steele has also asked neighboring Mathews and Middlesex counties if they’d like to team up.
The county is worried that residents will leave and jobs won’t arrive if broadband access doesn’t improve.
Suffolk officials are looking for grants to expand broadband in rural reaches of the city, currently working on a proposal to the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative fund, spokeswoman Diane Klink said.
An Eastern Shore Answer
On the Eastern Shore, Accomack and Northampton counties have teamed up to form a public broadband authority, which has connected more than 1,000 buildings with 350 miles of fiber and 23 wireless towers. That’s made a big difference to the 100kgarages.com digital fabrication network that Bill Young, of Willis Wharf, founded -- though the wireless connection in his shop, which comes through an antenna on top of a nearby grain elevator sometimes means hiccups in his morning Zoom meetings. But Wec Terry, at the H.M. Terry clam and oyster aquaculture operation in Willis Wharf, said his fiber connection is expensive -- and he’s not sure it is really all that much faster.
The virus, meanwhile, has turned a long-term concern into an immediate crisis for many rural students, who are supposed to have online lessons now that schools are closed.
“We had been going to my parent’s house in Henrico to do schoolwork. We have not done so in over a week because I am afraid of putting my almost 70-year-old parents at risk,” said Holly Carson Sill of King William County. “Doing their schoolwork in a parking lot is ridiculous. I have to bring my 3-year-old with us, which is extremely hard for him and it’s distracting for my high schoolers. Plus, it is extremely uncomfortable for the four of us to sit in a mid-size SUV for an extended period of time.”
In Gloucester County, only about a third of students are going online for class meetings, said Brian Teucke, who teaches eighth grade social studies at Page Middle School in Gloucester and is president of the Gloucester Education Association.
While only a small number of students have no internet access at all, many more have only unreliable cell phone hotspots to tap into class meetings or pre-recorded online lessons.
“There are some students that even though they have internet, it’s not broadband,” Teucke said. “They’re using their hotspots on their phones. It’s difficult because their parents might be using the same hotspot, or their other brothers and sisters.”
While teachers do stay in touch by telephoning students, and paper packets are available for middle school students, “As long as you have some students with broadband and some students that don’t have broadband, you’re just not going to have equity,” Teucke said. For many teachers, meanwhile, the idea of online class meetings, using a video- or web-conferencing system isn’t practical -- too many participants and too cumbersome for quick-paced question and answer or discussion-based pedagogy.
He estimates as many as 10-25 percent of teachers in Gloucester don’t have reliable internet access -- including himself. He lives in King William County and can’t get broadband at home. He has to rely on a hotspot, and when his wife works from home, it’s a struggle to get online.
“We have to download things and of course stream live conferences,” Teucke said. “So not having broadband is definitely impacting teachers.”
Buses with Hotspots
To make sure that students can access the internet, many schools have handed out devices that can go online and opened their WiFi networks so that families can log in from the parking lot.
Isle of Wight County schools have stationed school buses with WiFi at two churches, a community center and a shopping center. In Mathews, schools have taken similar steps, deploying WiFi-equipped buses at a church and Mathews County Park.
The Prince George Electric Cooperative has set up WiFi hotspots at two Surry County churches as well as at its own offices in Waverly. The Blackwater Regional Library system provides WiFi services accessible from branch library parking lots in Isle of Wight, Surry, Sussex and Southampton counties, as does the Gloucester County system.
In Mathews County, more than 70 percent of families rely on their cell phones for internet access, while only 5 percent had DSL connections, a school board survey found.
And cell service can be spotty, making hotspots useless.
Mathews County Public Schools superintendent Nancy Welch can’t get cell phone calls inside her house in North, sometimes taking calls from her car parked in her backyard.
“That’s part of how you live in rural America, unfortunately,” Welch said over the phone, standing at her front door trying to keep a signal.
One teacher was driving up to Mathews High School late at night and staying in the parking lot uploading and downloading files until administrators found out and hunted down a Verizon hotspot for her to take home.
“That's a safety issue in my mind,” Welch said. Nobody should be doing that in the middle of the night.”
Mathews has extended school Wi-Fi networks into parking lots, partnered with local businesses to offer Wi-Fi and deployed “SmartBuses” equipped with routers around the county.
“Although the government says that we have full access, that everybody in the county does, we don’t. It’s just not here,” Welch said.
A Challenge for Businesses, Too
Edwards Virginia Smokehouse, in Surry county, had to buy mobile WiFi hotspots for employees working from home, but “these Mifi routers aren’t very reliable and are just a temporary solution,” said vice president Sammy Edwards.
Slow connections are especially a problem for much smaller, home-based businesses.
“We used to have halfway decent service in the daytime, and it would slow in the evening, but now it’s slow all of the time,” said Terri Blanchard Cook, a Mangohick business owner who relies on her cellphone hotspot.
“We’re running a small business out of the home ... still chugging along, but it’s frustrating when you need what is a basic service in many areas,” Cook said."It’s better than nothing, but sure would be nice to have something fast and reliable."
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