Published February 23rd, 2022 at 6:00 AM
Katie Pyatt remembers early in the pandemic when the Wi-Fi to her rural home in Centerview, Missouri, went kaput. All five of her children were doing school from home, and would lose their progress on assignment.
Her children attend in-person schooling now, but her internet situation hasn’t improved.
She now pays $178 a month for 10 megabits per second (Mbps) service via CenturyLink.
“This is our only option,” Pyatt said. “This company owes us money because we’re paying for something that we’re not getting.”
The percentage of rural Americans with fixed broadband increased from 61.5% of the population in 2015 to 82.7% of the population in 2019. (Broadband is considered speeds of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.)
Although more rural residents have gained access to broadband in recent years, it still leaves many, like Pyatt and her family, feeling overlooked out in the country.
Noting the need to bridge the digital divide, the federal government allocated $20.4 billion to the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). In 2020, the funds were auctioned to companies that submitted bids to improve their networks. In the past year, service companies have started implementing their network plans to connect rural communities.
The landmark funding to address the issue has been slow to roll out, leaving many in rural areas to wonder if it will actually reach them.
“We live out off the highway, so we don’t really live by anything,” Pyatt chuckled. “You can’t stream, you can’t do anything. Whenever you have a 3-year-old that wants to watch Curious George all the time, it’s nice to have the option (of streaming rather than live television).”
Even with two modems – one upstairs and one downstairs – Pyatt’s children usually can only load about 10 minutes of a show they want to stream before it crashes. It takes her eldest son three days to download a video game.
On top of the cost, it’s a big headache.
When she and her family first moved out to their rural residence, it took four or five visits from her service provider, CenturyLink, before both of her modems were properly connected and turned on.
“The technicians that even work for them have come out and said that there’s too many people on this one service, they are just overloading it,” Pyatt said. “So your download speed, your internet speed or Wi-Fi is going to be slow.”
Spectrum, a communications service provider under Charter Communications, won $1.2 billion at the rural broadband funding auction. The company is now working to implement its $5 billion project to connect 1 million locations in rural communities in 24 states.
Recently, the company offered “gigabit” service to 140 homes and businesses in rural Johnson County, Missouri, with plans to expand more in the county and surrounding areas.
“Our commitment is making it possible to deliver the high-value broadband, mobile, TV and voice services now available in more areas of Johnson County,” said Matt Brown, vice president of construction at Spectrum, in a statement. “We are providing superior connectivity to local residents and small businesses at highly competitive prices, backed by an organization committed to craftsmanship and service.”
Pyatt had Spectrum service when she lived in Kansas City, several years before moving to her current home in the country.
“Whenever they (Spectrum) come back to the area I’m so going to throw them a party,” Pyatt said.
Due to the spread out nature of rural areas, serving residents and businesses is a lot more complicated than simply hooking up some wires.
A representative from Spectrum said these projects take months of extensive network designing. Usually the process involves an employee physically walking out to each utility pole and taking measurements.
After the network design is in place, it has to be built. This means either constructing new utility poles and connecting lines to existing ones, or sometimes installing lines underground.
The process is labor intensive, which is why the rural broadband funding program has been important in incentivizing service providers to embark on these types of projects.
The end goal of the program is for everyone to have access to broadband, currently defined as 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds.
Spectrum connectivity provides residential service with download speeds as high as 200 Mbps, depending on a customer’s plans, though even the lowest cost plan offers speeds over the 25/3 Mbps minimum broadband benchmark. Businesses can get service offering up to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps).
The Federal Communications Commission’s “Broadband Deployment Report” holds that the 25/3 Mbps speeds are an appropriate benchmark to aim for, though acknowledging arguments about increased need for faster broadband as more telecommunications take place in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Pyatt’s 10 Mbps service consistently underperforms. She recently found out that her Hulu streaming subscription is basically useless. When she called to report loading issues, she was told her internet was too slow to work with the streaming platform.
“Dial up was faster than this,” Pyatt laughed. “It is ridiculous.”
CenturyLink said in an email statement that it is working within a 10 year plan to bring gigabit service via fiber connectivity to as many corners as “economically feasible.” It, like Spectrum, won a substantial sum at the RDOF auction for the project.
Just east of Centerview in the Pittsville area, Rayna and Wes Rains have even worse connectivity.
They also have CenturyLink, but at just 1.5 Mbps, it’s not good for much beyond checking the news online.
“We’re happy that they (CenturyLink) try. But basically … you can’t do anything,” Wes Rains said. “But I don’t want to be too critical because they’re the only ones that did anything.”
Not long ago, Wes Rains saw the Spectrum crew out mapping the area. He thought they were joking when the employees said they were bringing service out to his area.
“We’re used to hearing government or politicians or whatever talk about infrastructure money, but it never makes it out here,” Wes Rains said. “It would be interesting if some infrastructure money actually did make it out to the rural areas.”
“Not that we’re complaining,” Rayna Rains interjected.
The Rains chose to live where they do, and their life in the country is nothing short of bucolic.
From the rural property, Rayna Rains tends a colorful flower garden and raises chickens to sell the colorful eggs to her neighbors and family members. In the summer they grow sweet corn to sell at the farmers market.
When flowers and hens are dormant during the colder months of the year, the two stay inside. They stream movies and gardening YouTube videos via Wi-Fi hotspots on their cell phones.
It’s not ideal – there’s a finite amount they can use each month, and they can’t hook up smart devices – but it works.
Even in Kansas City, a city that’s been equipped with gigabit technology for close to 10 years, a recent study by Hotdog.com found 11.2% of households in the metropolitan area use cellular data as their only form of internet.
Cellular data works, but can’t support the same internet usage as broadband.
It would, for example, allow Rayna Rains to work from home.
She could dedicate the 90 minutes she currently spends commuting to work in Kansas City to spending more time with her chickens and flowers.
“I think there’s a stereotype of people that live out in the areas that we live in,” Wes Rains said. “There’s a lot that would love the ease of streaming, Netflix and Hulu or Sling or whatever.”
As soon as Spectrum is available, the Rains said they plan to sign up for the service.
The company’s total buildout plan is expected to be completed in 2027 and is estimated to connect over 1 million rural Americans to broadband. For those interested in the program, they can visit Spectrum’s rural build site to see if their location is in the plan.
Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.