Slow, spotty, stuttering Wi-Fi is the worst. I know because I spent the last month trying to work from my parents’ house outside of Kenai, Alaska.
If it was sunny, and I turned their router off and on, stood on one foot in the highest point of the southeast corner of the living room, was the only person in the house online at that moment, and only trying to check emails – well then it was fine. Sometimes.
Add cloudy weather, another device or two, an actual comfy chair to work from, and someone trying to watch Netflix or Hulu? Fuhgetaboutit.
It turns out that of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, Alaska has the slowest internet speed in America, according to internet testing firm Ookla, which conducted a speed test for PCMag.com in November 2019. That’s no surprise, given that it’s the Last Frontier and all.
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What is a surprise though, is just how bad Wi-Fi and slow internet’s been across the map for so many of us during these pandemic times – no matter where we live. Normally, crummy connections are super frustrating – akin to robocalls during dinnertime. But when directly tied to our ability to work, learn, and communicate with the outside world, it’s more than annoying.
Poor connections fail our students
“It’s so frustrating, work that should have taken me two hours took five, or even seven,” 14-year old high school freshman Jordi Alford told me in Oakland, California last week. Jordi, his younger brother Kiran (10), and Alford’s parents left their urban home in mid-March to ride out COVID-19 more remotely in their family’s cluster of cabins in the Sierra Foothills. Alford’s father is recovering from cancer and has COPD, which puts him at an increased risk of serious illness from the coronavirus.
“We were medically advised to leave town,” Jordi’s mom, Anki said. “And being out in the country was so much better for all of us for so many reasons – cleaner air, more access to outside activity – and only family around us. But not having access to reliable internet took its toll,” she added. “They would get through about three sentences of a Zoom lesson with their teacher, then get disconnected with the spinning wheel and have to wait 20, 30, 40 minutes. It was awful,” Anki said.
Fifth grader Kiran agreed. “There’s no Wi-Fi, so we got a Verizon Jetpack and an antenna to boost power,” he told me. “That gave us enough of a signal to go on for about five minutes at a time, but then it would stop, so we were just barely able to do a little tiny bit of work.”
As a result, the Alford family came back to Oakland to start the new school year with better Wi-Fi, but against doctor’s orders.
A widening digital divide
“The unfortunate truth is that millions of Americans working, going to school, and living in America’s heartland still don’t have access to high-speed broadband internet e-Connectivity,” USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue told USA TODAY. “In fact, of the 21 million Americans who lack high-speed broadband internet access, 80% are in rural areas and on tribal lands.”
This isn’t the first time rural areas have suffered. The same thing happened nearly 100 years ago with electricity, too. Back then, it took the U.S. government’s passing of the Rural Electrification Act and the creation of electric cooperatives to make a lasting change.
Historically though, the United States government hasn’t been as proactive with high-speed internet. Instead of treating broadband as a public utility, they leave it up to the largely self-regulated internet industry to provide service. As a result, internet service providers (ISPs) often don’t see these sparsely populated areas as profitable enough.
“My sisters and I all have houses on our family farm in (rural southeastern) North Carolina,” says John Forlaw, a retired college math teacher. “We can’t get broadband at all. Going there is like going back in time. There’s no distance learning, Netflix, or telemedicine, which would be very helpful given my mother’s health and this pandemic.”
It’s clear to him that the reason isn’t so much technical as it is financial.
“I can see the orange markers designating a buried fiber optic cable owned by Spectrum within the ‘right of way’ on our property,” he says. “But when I call and ask if I can access it, they say no, there is no service here.”
Broad-banned, even in the city
“That’s so infuriating,” says Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel – an outspoken advocate for more equal broadband access for everyone. “As a country, we’ve been told to go online for work, for school, for health care, and for so much more. And the challenge is that not everyone in this country can do that. To me, this is the cruelest part of the digital divide.”
Rosenworcel says the problem isn’t just for those living in the country. It hits city-dwellers hard too.
Some 100,000 students lack access to high-speed internet in Chicago. 112,000 residents have no wired internet services available at their New York address. And according to the nonprofit group Tech Exchange, one in every five San Francisco Bay Area residents don’t have an Internet connection at home, even though they live in the shadows of some of the biggest tech companies in the world including Apple, Google, Facebook, Tesla, and Twitter – to name a few.
Even in areas of tremendous wealth, the digital divide is getting worse. In the hardscrabble neighborhood where I live in West Oakland for example, which is a ten minute BART ride away from the doorsteps of dozens of top tech companies, getting high-speed internet delivered to your home is expensive, and so is living here. A starter home sets you back a million dollars, and the average one-bedroom rental is around $3,000.
And this is just one example. 20 million people who do live within the reach of broadband service do not subscribe because they can’t afford to or the speeds they can get are not worth the cost. And about 4.5 million people in urban areas still can’t get access to broadband because of service inadequacies caused by geography or the vagaries of service-provider rollouts.
If it sounds like digital redlining, many advocates say, that’s because it is. Similar to residential redlining, this impacts races differently too: Black Americans are less likely than white Americans to have a broadband connection at home, according to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.
While many households in urban areas will be able to rely on generous donations of laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots thanks to some tech companies, many advocates worry it won’t be enough.
“We need to make it a national priority, to get 100% of our households on line,” the FCC’s Rosenworcel says. “It’s essential for modern life and it’s going to be the boost to our economy that we need in the coming years.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Broadband: Digital divide slows learning, work amid coronavirus crisis