03: In the Sticks
Many rural school districts, including Fort’s Taliaferro, offered new computers and mobile hotspots as the pandemic hit, only to see weak, nearly non-existent coverage that left students stranded in unconnected homes.
Geronta Bailey tried to do his work online, but once the hotspots failed to get a signal in his rural wooded area, he “basically wasn’t able to go to school at all.”
“We should have wifi for free. Because it’s something we need. Of course, we need a lot of things. Food. Water,” Bailey told me (Taliaferro doesn’t have a fresh grocery store, although it does have three dollar stores, and about two-thirds of residents rely on private wells for water and septic tanks for sewage).
The graduating Taliaferro senior has all but written off higher education, saying it isn’t for him. Instead, he’ll likely work at the Amazon warehouse an hour away or take up the offer from the Army recruiter who knocked on his door a few weeks back.
Taliaferro also tried to launch a partnership with the Georgia Cyber Center, which promised to use the county as a rural connectivity roadmap for the entire state — and, perhaps, the nation.
But despite the state’s Lieutenant Governor declaring it “a perfect intersection of innovation” in a televised press conference
, that too stuttered.
It took six months for the Cyber Center to send its report determining the cost to provide access: nearly $1.5M upfront for a county whose total annual budget was $4.3M, plus around $200K annually in upkeep.
Even that cost could have been surmountable, with the help of grants. But Taliaferro found it didn’t qualify for USDA’s major broadband grant, the ReConnect program, because the local telecom had scooped it up while school officials awaited that Cyber Center report.
Relyant Communications used the grant to provide broadband internet of 50 mbps — but the cost per household is four times that which the Cyber Center and school were planning to offer residents at similar speeds.
Relyant was able to get the grant without the county even knowing, because it applied first and affordability isn’t a factor for eligibility, experts say. Taliaferro now “has” broadband internet, but school officials estimate abou 40% of students are still not connected because their parents can’t afford to pay the $100 per month for it.
In mid-May, the Biden administration announced a deal
to provide $30 per month, 100 mbps plans for low-income households from 20 major internet service providers who already cover about 80 percent of the U.S. population.
But that still won’t solve the affordability issue for Taliaferro, whose ISP isn’t on that list.
As I wrote recently
, the 20% of Americans most likely to be left disconnected are also disproportionately from the most rural and remote parts of America — and it doesn’t help that faulty FEC maps mean Uncle Sam isn’t even sure who has access and who doesn’t.
Fort remains fed up, two years after all this talk about providing rural connectivity began.
Sitting in the computer lab of his district’s sole school serving all 200 of his K-12 students, Fort points to a small styrofoam cup of water in the middle of the table.
“They’re not lying. You do have a signal now,” he says.
But for Fort it’s like having 10 people at the table, and everyone is thirsty. Sure, they all technically have access to the water in that cup. But as soon as one person starts drinking from it?
“It runs out.”