‘Our Children Have Zero Access’: Lack of Rural Broadband Hurts Virginia Students

Martinsville resident Caitlyn Conner and her family have one major problem: they can't get broadband internet where they live.

By Keya Vakil

July 16, 2021

More than 200,000 Virginia students lack broadband in the home. President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal would aim to solve this crisis by investing between $65 and $100 billion.

MARTINSVILLE-When Caitlyn Conner purchased her new home in Martinsville in 2018, the born-and-raised Virginian had no idea she’d be stepping back into the 20th century.

Up until that point, Conner, 32, and her husband had always had ready access to the Internet. But when they reached out to the two main service providers in their area, CenturyLink and Comcast, they learned that neither could offer them a high-speed, broadband internet connection for their new home. 

CenturyLink had no plans to upgrade the basic phone lines on their property to DSL lines. Comcast meanwhile quoted Conner an astonishing $100,000 to install the necessary cabling.

“At first we actually thought they were joking. We went back and said, ‘Did you put one too many zeros? Maybe it was only $10,000? But they weren’t,” Conner told Dogwood. “If you saw where our house was, we’re not that far from the hub of Henry County. It’s not like we’re 20 miles outside of the area; we’re very close to everything. It was just very shocking.”

They explored using satellite internet through HughesNet, but were unable to obtain a strong enough signal due to the tree coverage around their house. That left Conner and her family without access to the sort of high-speed internet that is now a pillar of American life.  

“I felt like we got into a time machine and went back 15 years,” Conner said. “When we are home, our children have zero access to the outside world.”

Rendering Home Systems Unusable

Living without broadband was a major inconvenience. Its’ absence rendered home alarm systems and cameras, baby monitors, an iRobot vacuum, and gaming consoles all but unusable. 

“I have three boys. They love Fortnite, and they have a lot of sleepovers at Nanny and Poppa’s house, because they have internet,” Conner said. “They have a Nintendo Switch that they can’t really play. I didn’t even realize you can’t download the new games without internet.”

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. The lack of broadband went from a minor inconvenience to something far greater. Conner, who works as a student information systems assistant at Henry County Public Schools, was told to work from home. Her two older sons, who are now 8 and 11, transitioned to virtual learning as did most Virginia students. 

The adjustment was an “immense” struggle, Conner said, but their saving grace was that Conner’s parents—Nanny and Poppa—lived nearby and had broadband. 

“Luckily, my family lives in town, and so we were able to go to their house every day to complete my work plus the kids doing their homework and assignments each day,” Conner said. “We were able to make it work, but if we didn’t have family in the area, I’m not really sure how it would have worked out.”

Conner and her family weren’t alone in facing these issues. More than 200,000 K-12 students—14% of all Virginia students— lack broadband subscriptions in the home. That’s according to a 2020 report from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. In rural communities, nearly 20% of Virginia students lack broadband in the home. Compare that to less than 10% of students living in urban areas.

A Digital Divide For Virginia Students

The consequences of this “digital divide”—the gap between Virginia students with access to the internet and those who don’t—were on full display during the pandemic. Virginia students in rural areas struggled with distance learning and fell behind their peers in better-connected regions. The pandemic laid bare the inequities of the country’s broadband infrastructure—a failing that disproportionately harms rural communities like those in Henry County.

But  the past year has also made the strongest possible case for federal investment to tackle the problem.  And that’s exactly what President Joe Biden and Democrats are fighting for.

As part of his Build Back Better Agenda, Biden has proposed investing a whopping $100 billion—on top of the billions the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and other federal agencies already spend on broadband each year—to build out the nation’s broadband network to reach 100% universal access. That number has since been lowered to $65 billion in negotiations with Republicans as part of a tentative bipartisan infrastructure deal. But even that level of investment would be a big win for rural America.

“I think those funds could be essential in overcoming some of the remaining parts of the digital divide here,” said Mike Romano, a senior vice president of industry affairs and business development at the NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association. 

‘We Don’t Know Who Has Broadband’

While most Americans have access to high-speed broadband internet—which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines as a minimum of 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed—millions living in rural parts of the country don’t.

The consequences of not having broadband can be staggering, according to Christopher Ali, an associate professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia: “Broadband influences education, health, economic development…civic engagement, quality of life, and public safety.”

“It’s a game changer,” he said. “This is the electricity of the 21st century.”

Virginia students are particularly harmed by a lack of high-speed internet access. One study found that students with high-speed, home internet access have a half a letter grade higher grade point average (GPA) than those without. But without question, the pandemic exacerbated the problem.

In recent years, students in Dickenson County in southwestern Virginia have had relatively high scores in Virginia’s statewide Standards of Learning (SOL) tests. But Phyllis Mullins, a seventh grade civics and economics teacher at Dickenson County Public Schools, is worried that the pandemic and the lack of widespread broadband access at home has set her students behind. 

After classes went virtual last March, many of her students struggled to participate because they lacked internet at home. “We had to make a flash drive and send laptops home and something they did not have to have internet to use, because they had no internet, no access to Internet,” she said. 

Even students who did have some level of broadband access often got booted from Google Meets if they had siblings who were also learning remotely, according to Mullins. “Their internet just wouldn’t carry it. It wasn’t strong enough.”

Will Virginia Students Be Able to Catch Up?

Mullins worries that those students are going to have a hard time catching up, despite summer school and other efforts to help them catch up. “There’s only so much that can be done,” she said. “Some of them have lost a year of learning, if not more.”

“It’s an equity issue in a way because our kids deserve the same opportunities as kids in northern Virginia,” she added. “Our kids shouldn’t have to drive to a restaurant or a parking lot or something like that and sit in a vehicle. I’ve had kids sit in a vehicle and do Google Meets because they didn’t have internet at home.”

Similar scenes played out across America.

“Parking lots of McDonald’s and libraries seem to be the two big spots because they offer free Wi-Fi and a strong enough signal that students, particularly rural students, can piggyback off a signal,” Ali said. “It’s more prevalent than you can imagine, which is incredibly unfortunate.” 

The sheer scope of the problem is difficult to determine. The FCC’s most recent Broadband Deployment Report, published in 2020, claims that only 18 million Americans lack access to broadband. But a study by Broadband Now pegged the number at 42 million, and the FCC’s own commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has called into question the accuracy of the agency’s figures.

That’s because under current FCC standards, broadband providers self-report data. If they tell the agency that one home within a census block has access to broadband services, then the entire census block is considered served. This self-reporting allows companies to paint themselves in the best picture possible, even if it’s not the reality. 

The FCC Wouldn’t Know

A company could also theoretically report that it delivers 25 Mbps download speed but actually deliver a slower speed, and the FCC wouldn’t know. And since the FCC doesn’t give money to communities that are considered served at its baseline, communities that might really need subsidies for funding could be ineligible if a provider’s self-reporting is faulty. 

“We don’t know who has broadband and who doesn’t,” Ali said, complaining about the “terrible maps” that the FCC has produced. Because of census block mapping, the entirety of Dickenson and Henry counties appears to have access to broadband when you look at the FCC’s broadband map. But as Conner and Mullins have made clear, that is distinctly not the case.

“In the three miles where the internet stops” in her area, Conner said, “there are several families that are affected by the lack of broadband connection.”

In Henry County, where Conner lives, just under 53% of residents have a high-speed internet connection at home, according to a 2019 analysis from University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. By comparison, in Dickenson County, that number is 38%.

Why Is There a Digital Divide?

There are two main reasons for the digital divide, experts say: access and affordability.

On the access front, it’s more expensive for providers to wire remote, rural areas where there’s more ground to cover and fewer customers than suburban and urban communities. This means many communities simply don’t have any providers offering services at all. 

“If I’m a large provider and I serve Richmond and Arlington, Virginia, but I also happen to serve a corner of southwestern, rural Virginia, I’m going to put investments in the first place where it’s going to be easiest to recover them,” Romano said. “Even if I’m putting aside profit motive, just the ability to recover the investment, it’s going to be easier to recover investment in areas that are more densely populated.”

This approach left gaps in broadband coverage in rural America. It leaves smaller, local companies and cooperatives to try and fill the void. Many of these companies are members of the NTCA-Rural Broadband Association. The group represents nearly 850 of these independent, community-based telecom companies across 46 states, including Virginia. 

These companies, which on average serve only 5,000 customers each, Romano explained, have more of an incentive to provide broadband services because they live in the communities they serve, unlike the national companies. “It’s their kid’s school or their grandkid’s school who they’re serving, or their kid or grandkid’s houses,” he said. “They have a vested interest in their community succeeding.”

But these companies have limited funds and have historically struggled to obtain federal funding. That’s due to bureaucratic red tape and confusing, time-consuming application and reporting processes, according to Ali

The other major impediment to high-speed broadband is affordability. Only 51% of Virginians have access to an affordable internet plan, according to a recent study from Broadband Now. That study defined affordable cost as $60 or less per month for wired internet of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speed. 

The culprit of these high prices? A lack of competition, which effectively allows providers in these areas to charge higher prices

“In this country, we’re paying more for broadband than most developed countries in the world,” Ali said. “We need to make broadband more affordable.”

‘Without Money, You’re Not Going to Get Broadband Access’

Gov. Ralph Northam has vowed that Virginia will reach universal broadband connectivity by 2028. The state has poured tens of millions of dollars into deployment in recent years. Now the Democratic-controlled state legislature wants to use funds from Biden’s American Rescue Plan to further expand access and perhaps even attain universal broadband within the next 18 months. Local governments have also invested in broadband, but their resources are limited.

Ali believes that in order to really solve the digital divide, it will take a massive federal investment. And that appears to be on the horizon.  President Biden and a bipartisan group of senators have tentatively agreed to spend $65 billion to expand broadband and make it more affordable in a deal that’s been dubbed the “Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework.”

Mullins, the Dickenson County teacher, and Conner, the Henry County parent, support the effort. They describe it as necessary to expand broadband in their communities. 

“Without money, you’re not going to get broadband access,” Mullins said.

Money won’t solve everything, though. Also, a one-time act won’t be enough to reach universal access and affordability, according to Romano.

“This is going to be a huge essential step forward, a once-in-a-generation opportunity maybe to get this done right, but those who build these networks are going to have to remain committed to serving their customers, it’s not just the act of building a network, it’s the act of delivering a service that really matters,” he said.

Ali agreed and emphasized that spending the money the right way was critical. “We need to raise the speed, we need good maps. We need to start encouraging municipalities and cooperatives to offer broadband,” Ali said. “Then of course, there’s the affordability angle, we need to make broadband more affordable.”

Virginia Students Need Expanded Broadband Benefit

He cited the temporary Emergency Broadband Benefit, which was passed as part of the American Rescue Plan and gave low-income households up to $50 a month to subsidize broadband. He wants to make that subsidy permanent.  

Reliable broadband at home would be life-changing for Virginians like Conner and her family.

“It would give us the ability to be connected to the outside world when we are home. My children would be able to use their school-issued devices at home,” she said. “They would be able to use the instructional apps on the iPads to enrich and enhance their instruction received at school.”

In a world where remote work is on the rise, high-speed internet might even help keep her children in their community as they get older—a scenario that is otherwise unlikely.

“My son wants to be a video game developer, clearly he’s not coming back to Henry County, Virginia to develop any video games,” Conner said. “That’s sad, but I think that just really opens up the lens of how far behind I guess we are in terms of having that access to high-speed broadband.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Phyllis Mullins’ name. We regret the error.

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  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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