What It’s Like to Live in America Without Broadband Internet

“We should also be asking what’s it like to not have internet within Urban areas of most cities for children of color” How do they become competitive in today’s global economic environment without access to basic internet capabilities within their homes. Many communities and local schools have had these basic necessities for many years. As you preview the article below that concentrates on those who live in rural white Appalachian areas. Remember there are other regions who also have serious concerns about broadband internet access.

Ben Wilfong leaned toward his computer screen, fingers poised over the mouse and keyboard, ten-gallon hat above his brow. A long list of personal details appeared under the chosen lot: name, date of birth, sire: important things to know when bidding on expensive Black Angus beef cows. The actual cow that was up for auction could be seen in a video next to these stats: a kind of livestock glamour roll of the animal moving through a field. This is farming in the 21st century.

For Wilfong, however, the auction was little more than a mirage. The internet connection on his rural West Virginia farm was so agonizingly slow, there was no way to load the video in enough time to actually see the animal.

“By the time I’ve clicked to bid on cattle, the auction is over,” Wilfong told me recently. “Five seconds is an eternity in an auction. It’s cost me a lot of revenue.”

Wilfong is one of the more than 24 million Americans, or about 8 percent of the country, who don’t have access to high-speed internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)—and that’s a conservative estimate. Most of them live in rural and tribal areas, though the problem affects urban communities, too. In every single state, a portion of the population doesn’t have access to broadband.

The reasons these communities have been left behind are as diverse as the areas themselves. Rural regions like Wilfong’s hometown of Marlinton are not densely populated enough to get telecom companies to invest in building the infrastructure to serve them. Some areas can be labeled as “served” by telecoms even if many homes don’t actually have internet access, as in Sharon Township, Michigan, just a short drive from the technology hub of Ann Arbor. Others are just really far away. These places are so geographically remote that laying cable is physically and financially prohibitive, so towns like Orleans, California, have started their own nonprofit internet services instead.

There are alternative options for internet service, such as satellite dish or fixed wireless. But rarely are these services reliable and fast enough for modern use, and they’re often much more expensive than cable.

This gap, between the internet haves and have-nots, is known as the digital divide. The problem isn’t that these folks are missing out on spending an entire weekend binge-watching the latest season of Stranger Things (though that’s a totally reasonable use of the internet). The problem is that, increasingly, the tools we use in our daily lives are moving online, sometimes exclusively so. Students are assigned internet-based homework. Tax filings and applications for government programs or student loans are more commonly done online—and are processed more quickly than via snail mail.

The economic impacts especially are vast: When was the last time you saw a job posting anywhere other than online? Businesses are less likely to set up shop in areas without good internet access, and realtors say it’s more difficult to sell homes that aren’t connected.

A lack of internet is forcing many young people to move away, fleeing their home states altogether to find modern career opportunities. It prevents areas already hard-hit by the demise of other industries, like coal, from finding new ways to make money online or telecommuting. A lack of internet access hurts businesses, hinders education, prevents people from getting jobs, and can even be life-threatening, as emergency services increasingly rely on internet-connected communications and documentation. The federal government and its agencies for years have promised to invest in internet infrastructure, but progress has not been made fast enough for many rural towns. These communities are left to find a way to bridge this divide themselves, lest the gulf between them and the rest of the country expand even further. Here’s what it looks like from the other side of the digital divide:

Driving through the mountains in Pocahontas County is breathtaking. The highways twist around switchback bends through dense forest and rocky cliff sides. You’ll see plenty of deer, rabbits, and possums, but few other cars. Cell phone service is practically nonexistent. On the radio, when you can get a signal, you’ll hear ads for opioid addiction treatment programs and once a day, the local lost and found bulletin.

More than 60 percent of the roughly 900-square-mile county consists of protected state or federal lands. A population of about 9,000 spreads out over this landscape—about ten residents per square mile. Pocahontas County has a distinctly southern feel: locals speak with a warm, lilting drawl; Civil War trenches still dot the hillsides. And Marlinton, population 1,054, is its largest town.

This place is isolated, not just physically but also by the distinct lack of access to communication technology. As of June 2016, not a single home in Pocahontas County outside of the ski resort has high-speed internet as defined by the FCC: a minimum of 25 megabits per second download speeds and 3 Mbps upload speeds. In most of America, these speeds are pretty standard. In many major cities, access to regular home internet with speeds as high as 100 Mbps or even 1 gigabit per second is common. In Marlinton, what little access many households do have is unreliable, spotty, or slow. A handful of people have no internet at all.

It’s a particularly common problem in West Virginia, where 40 percent of rural residents don’t have access to broadband internet. Only a handful of states have similar or worse connectivity rates. In many cases, the areas are too sparsely populated to be worth the expense of running cable internet for the large telecoms that cover most of the country, like AT&T, Comcast, and Charter. When that happens, wireless internet and cell phone coverage is often the only alternative.

But even those stopgaps are out of reach for parts of Pocahontas County, because it is also home to the Green Bank Telescope, the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope. Used, in part, to listen for signals from intelligent extraterrestrial life, the telescope requires radio silence in the surrounding area to be able to function. It’s part of two overlapping radio quiet zones, one federal and one state, that limit the use of electric signals. Within a ten-mile radius of the observatory, people can’t use cell phones or WiFi, if it exists, and on site, microwaves are banned.

It means when teenagers in the area want to hang out on the weekend, they aren’t sending each other texts. They still call each other up on landlines.

While the idea of unplugging has a certain shine to it for those of us exhausted by our constant connection, an actual lack of access has serious consequences on the community. In Pocahontas County, the unemployment rate is higher than the national average, for examples, and studies have shown that increased broadband adoption in rural areas has a strong, possibly causal, impact on employment. But aside from the local ski resort, this region has yet to benefit from such a technological boost. Despite the rolling bucolic beauty of the landscape, it makes you wonder why anyone chooses to live here. But when I pose that question to locals, they seemed stunned that I would even ask.

“I don’t want to live in a city, that’s why I’m here,” Wilfong, the cattle farmer, said with a laugh. “It’s beautiful. It’s peaceful. It’s a healthy environment in which to raise your kids. And it’s home.”

In towns where internet access is limited, the local library often becomes a digital oasis. I wanted to see if that was the case in Marlinton, so I popped in unannounced and asked the librarian how many of the visitors come strictly to use the internet. Pulling out a stack of handwritten daily records, we flipped through and were able to see that about a third of the visitors come just to log on. I sat down at one of the computer stations and opened an online speed test. Even there, speeds were far from broadband: 2.31 Mbps download, 0.79 upload. Enough to check your email or go on Facebook, but not much else.

Yet high above the streets of Marlinton, at the Snowshoe Mountain ski resort, another world exists. Fast internet, WiFi, and even cell phone coverage are readily available. In order to retain business from weekend warriors accustomed to consistent connection, the President and COO of the resort has invested heavily in a system that’s custom-built not to interfere with the telescope. It’s the only place in the entire county where my cell phone actually worked.

This recent development demonstrates that it is physically and technologically possible to build reliable, fast internet infrastructure that doesn’t interfere with the Quiet Zone. But in order to create that kind of network in the rest of the county, there needs to be funding, which is why Wilfong has continuously petitioned for help from the state and federal government.

He believes public-private partnership to bring down costs and incentivize telecom companies to invest in rural areas is the best way to ensure that rural areas like Marlinton are not left behind. So far, no concrete plans along those lines have come to fruition at the state or local level. Though locals continue to raise concerns, a solution is nowhere in sight.

The state of West Virginia has long been shaped by extraction. It’s a place that exported its most valuable resources for the benefit and profit of outsiders. First, it was coal and lumber being ferried out of the state in heaping stacks. Now, it’s West Virginians themselves, as young people leave in search of career opportunities, chasing a modern world that might otherwise leave them behind.

“It affects so much of the economy in this county and we’re losing so much,” Wilfong said. “I want my kids to stay here, but at this point there’s not much for me to offer them.”

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