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Not a Luxury: Pandemic Highlights Digital Divide in Rural Areas

Missouri and Kansas Communities Scramble for Broadband Access

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Above image credit: A water tower stands over the small town of Osceola, Missouri, on Oct. 29, 2020. The town of less than 1,000 people struggles to get broadband access to all of its residents. (Jacob Douglas | Flatland)

OSCEOLA, Mo. — The St. Clair County Library is just off of the square in downtown Osceola. Inside, a plastic sheet drapes from the ceiling to  separate the counter from the rest of the library, a new pandemic normal in 2020.

Behind the counter lies a waiting list seven names deep. The people on that list are waiting for one of seven wireless hotspots that have become a precious commodity since they became available in August.

“A lot of our patrons are living paycheck to paycheck,” St. Clair County Library Director Angie Jones said. “We’ve had a huge demand and it’s been hard to keep up with.”

As life shifted to the digital world in the midst of a national health crisis, people without access to high speed internet had to adapt the best they could. BroadbandNow estimates 352,000 residents in Missouri don’t have access to broadband internet. In Kansas the number is 173,000.

Wireless hotspot
Angie Jones shows off one of the seven wireless hotspots available at the St. Clair County Library on Oct. 29, 2020. The library has a waiting list, and only lets patrons check out the hotspots for one week at a time. (Jacob Douglas | Flatland)

Broadband internet is defined by the Federal Communications Commission as internet speeds of 25 megabits per second for download and 3 megabits per second for upload. At those speeds, you can stream Netflix without buffering, play online games without experiencing severe lag and stream music with little to no hiccups. 

When the pandemic started the library extended it’s wifi to reach the parking lot surrounding the building. Jones says that nearly every day residents utilize this service by sitting in their cars outside of the building and using their devices. She noted one specific postal worker who comes to do her job remotely Monday through Friday, and sometimes on Saturdays.

St. Clair County, about 100 miles southeast of Kansas City, has a population of about 9,000 people. Roughly 18% of them live below the poverty line. 

Theresa Heckenlively is the head of economic development for the county, and says lack of internet access is hurting the county now, and limiting its future. 

“We don’t have enough service to be reliable for home and definitely not enough for economic growth,” Heckenlively said. “We see that a lot of people are coming from out of state and want to move into our rural communities. And I see that long term they may not get what they need and internet access is a part of that.”

Heckenlively recalled someone who had come looking for office space in town, but due to the lack of reliable access to broadband internet, could not find anywhere to operate their business.

She also worries that young people who grew up with technology and are more plugged into the digital world may flee rural areas like St. Clair County to more urban areas with better access.

“We would be able to maintain our population a little bit with more internet access,” Heckenlively said.

Those wireless hotspots that have been flying off of the library shelves were the product of Missouri REAL program funding. But for some in rural areas, that hotspot won’t help, due to the fact that they don’t have reliable cellular connection to run devices off of them. 

The main internet providers in St. Clair County are CenturyLink, Viasat, HughesNet and Mediacom. All except for Mediacom (which is only available in 33.4% of the county) start their pricing at around $50. For a county that is economically disadvantaged, that can be a tall price to pay. 

“Living in a rural community the houses are so spaced out, on the provider side it’s hard for them to find profit in that,” Heckenlively said. “It’s hard for them because there has to be so many feet of fiber in between houses. On the user side, if they do satellites it can get quite costly. It can get them a little bit of usage but it’s not very affordable.”

But it’s not just lack of access and affordability that is creating the digital divide in rural America. The biggest issue is knowing exactly where people are connected.

Broadband coverage map in Missouri.
A map of served and unserved counties in Missouri. The state estimates nearly 300,000 households are without broadband access. (Source | CostQuest Associates)

The FCC tracks connectivity across the country through maps. Those maps are broken up into census blocks. In rural areas this data can become skewed.

Some census blocks in rural areas can take up large tracts of land, and with connectivity being so sparse, one house could be connected, while another down the road is not. By the FCC’s current mapping standards, that census block is considered to be served, even though not everyone within that block is. 

Because of that lack of concrete data, it’s nearly impossible to know how much money is needed to provide access to everyone, and to find out exactly who needs it.

“The data is not good to use,” said Jessica Denson, director of communications at Connected Nation. “We’re not going to get a real answer. It’s just not going to happen right now unless we have a better database.”

Earlier this year Congress passed the DATA Act into law. The new law will require the FCC to collect granular service availability data from wired, fixed wireless and satellite broadband providers. New technology would allow mapping to be done by each unique household or business place. 

The only problem is, according to the FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, there isn’t enough funding to make these maps a reality.

“While today’s item is a significant step forward that sets many of the standards for the next generation of broadband maps, Congress has yet to provide the funding we need for implementing the necessary systems for collecting and processing providers’ coverage data, developing the nationwide fabric of serviceable locations, or conducting the in-depth verification and challenge processes that will ensure the reliability of the maps,” Pai said in a statement.

Homework Gap

The Osceola Public School system has a plan. 

The COVID-19 outbreak in St. Clair County is currently manageable (24 cases in the last 14 days, no fatalities) enough for school to be open. According to the school system’s superintendent Michael Fransen, just 25 combined students are utilizing virtual or distance learning.

If they would have to shut down due to an increase in cases, Fransen said the school has planned to create an “internet cafe setting” where students who do not have internet access at home would be shuttled to the school, and monitored by a supervisor who would keep the room sanitized for the students to do their online learning. The school has also expanded its wifi range to the parking lot, much like the library.

Fransen said balancing safety and education for it’s students has been challenging, especially when 25-30% of the student body needs the school to provide them reliable internet access. 

“It’s like you’re building an airplane while you’re flying it,” Fransen said.

The pandemic has amplified a problem that many following the digital divide for years have already known: There is a massive homework gap in relation to internet access.

Denson of Connected Nation said that 12 million school aged children fall into this homework gap, where they had access at school, but not at home. 

Tim Arbeiter, Missouri’s director of broadband development, said that to better equip their students, they have worked with other state education institutions like the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to expand school networks, much like what happened in Osceola.

“We made that available to help with student devices,” Arbeiter said. “Because sometimes technology is absent in the home, so this was a way to bridge that particular divide.”

A Fresno State University study found that schools operating mostly from home will affect low income and minority students the most. It estimates low income students will lose 12.4 months of schooling, Black students will lose 10.3 months, Hispanic students will lose 9.2 months and White students will lose 6.

“It’s like if you give one kid an encyclopedia and one kid a computer for a year and go ‘hey go do your homework’,” Denson said. “Who do you think is going to excel?”

Quality of Life Issue

In Chase County, Kansas, students were sent home in March due to the pandemic. There were many students who could not get access to the internet, and were sent home with packets instead. 

Internet access has been a big problem in Chase County, about 125 miles southwest of Kansas City in the Flint Hills. For a long time, 10 megabits per second download speeds and one megabits per second upload speeds were about all they could get. Even the county seat of Cottonwood Falls struggles to get access downtown. 

According to Chase County Chamber of Commerce studies, about 10% of their residents are able to access the FCC minimum broadband speeds. About 20% of residents are receiving speeds as low as 3 megabits per second download speeds on satellite or hotspot access.

All of that could be changing by the end of the year, though.

“When COVID hit, that’s when things dramatically changed around here,” said Jenn Laird, Chase County economic development director. “People began to see the reality of what was happening here on the ground.”

Chase County is a hilly county, and some of it sits on a limestone foundation. Bringing in necessary broadband infrastructure can be difficult, and of course expensive.

FCC map of broadband access in Kansas.
The Federal Communications Commission map of broadband access in Kansas. The FCC’s mapping data has drawn criticism for not being accurate enough to portray the scope of the digital divide. (Source | FCC)

Kansas received nearly $50 million in CARES Act funding from the federal government to address it’s broadband needs. What seems like a lot of money, is actually just a start on what Stanley Adams, Kansas director of broadband development Initiatives, said is a longer process to solve the state’s broadband problems.

“One of the things I’m optimistic about is after we go through the process, get some applications in and get some projects done, we are going to have a better sense of where funding is needed,” Adams said.

Ideatek, a network service provider out of Buhler, Kansas, will be receiving $13.7 million from that sum to provide access to rural counties, including Chase County. The funding is  a breakthrough for a company that has long advocated to bridge the digital divide.

“Prior to the pandemic, we’ve been working for years to really advocate for closing the broadband digital divide, and trying to convey to legislators that if you live in rural Kansas, you’re not really getting the same level of service that’s available in more urban areas,” said Jade Piros de Carvalho, Ideatek’s director of industry and community relations. “It’s not just a luxury issue, right? It’s a quality of life issue. It’s an economic development issue. It’s an education issue.”

The Chase County project will cover 1,500 homes in Chase County and northeast Marion County. About $3.6 million of the state funding will go towards the project in Chase County, and Ideatek will be putting up an additional $1 million. 

The money will go towards extending gigabit fiber internet to all businesses and residents in Cottonwood Falls and Strong City, extending the network to Florence, and putting towers throughout the county to provide fixed wireless internet. According to CARES Act guidelines, the project is required to be finished by Dec. 30, 2020.

Laird said the county has been incredibly pleased with Ideatek, and thankful that some awareness has been brought to the lack of access in their community.

“It’s a shame that it took something like a pandemic to notice that something was going on here,” Laird said.

“Republicans, Democrats, independents, all of them are hearing from constituents that they’re frustrated and don’t have the access they need,” Denson said. “That was happening before the pandemic, but then suddenly we were forced into our homes. I always had to argue or explain that it’s not a luxury, and now it’s really a no brainer.”

While the pandemic has certainly shined a light on how internet access is a fundamental necessity for life in the modern world, Denson warns against believing things will change right away. But there is room for hope.

“We’ve been talking about the issue of data and maps for years,” Denson said. “And about two years ago it looked like that was going to finally be taken care of, and now we are here two years later. So the hope is that real action will start to happen, and it is in some places. You know how politics sometimes works. When you’re dealing with millions of dollars, there’s that question of ‘will it actually happen?’ ”

Connie Mushrush and her family own a large ranch in Chase County. Her internet access cannot withstand multiple people using it at once. She has to tell her children to get off of the internet when she needs to do important data moves, or register cattle online.

Mushrush said that a new line is coming along U.S. Highway 50, but the service provider told her that it would not be cost effective to run a line to their home to give them access. So much like many others in rural areas, she is stuck with inadequate internet access for her business.

“We feel like, as rural people, that we are not considered important,” Mushrush said. “You shouldn’t be excluded from that (internet access) because you live in a rural area.”

Correction: Jessica Denson’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

Jacob Douglas covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.

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