When Karen Eifert Jones had to complete online training to spray dicamba herbicide this spring, she ended up doing it on her cell phone from the driveway of her mother’s house.
She was trying to maintain social distance from her 87-year-old parent, but still use the broadband internet. “My 17-year-old daughter was doing schoolwork at our house, so I went to Mom’s driveway to make it work,” Eifert Jones said.
As for the distance between where Eifert Jones farms with her family near Waukomis, Oklahoma, and that of her mother? About a mile.
Her mother has access to broadband internet. Eifert Jones and her family do not. They do have an antenna-based internet connection from their house; however, with more people using the service in recent months, the competition for bandwidth slowed it down, she explained.
Eifert Jones doesn’t know why broadband access is available at her mother’s house but not at her own house. The local phone company buried the fiber line only so far, she figured.
As many rural residents without broadband do so often, they had to go in search of high-speed internet. This spring, the search became more critical.
MAJOR ADJUSTMENT DURING PANDEMIC
The last two months forced many people to work from home and kids to learn from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. This sudden change in everyday life was a major adjustment for workers, employers, students and teachers.
Those who live in rural areas faced these challenges with another big issue: lack of high-speed internet often referred to as broadband internet. While some areas have seen fiber optic lines installed, others attempted to work or learn from home with less consistent options for internet access.
As the school year wraps up for most students, those in rural areas look back at this spring and wonder how they did it.
People hope they can return to actual offices soon and students to schools this fall.
However, the pandemic highlighted shortcomings of internet access in rural areas and what needs to change, especially if a need for people to work or learn from home remains or returns this fall.
OTHER INTERNET LESS RELIABLE
Stories like Eifert Jones’ and her family are fairly common to those who have had to operate without rural broadband internet. Internet in rural areas can be obtained by satellite, antenna or cell phone hot spot, but dependability and cost of these options are major issues.
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Because of their home internet issues, Eifert Jones’ college-aged son had to stay in the dorms of his suddenly shut college this spring so he could continue to study. The family had to get a hardship waiver from the school to allow him to stay on campus through the end of the semester, she said.
Her daughter had to learn from home with their weak internet service, sometimes visiting her grandma’s basement to do schoolwork while maintaining distance between her and her grandmother. She faced lost and late assignments because of the internet, Eifert Jones said.
“She had issues right away with sending in assignments on Google Classroom and Docs,” she said. “We learned with weaker internet signals her work didn’t always go where it was supposed to.”
SEEKING A STRONGER SIGNAL
Neligh, Nebraska, farmer Kenny Reinke faced similar issues with rural internet as his children had to continue their school year from home in mid-March.
While his oldest is only in fifth grade and had most of his schoolwork on paper, they did have issues with rural internet at their house when the work required the internet. Reinke’s house sits in a valley roughly two miles wide about eight miles north of Neligh. Because of this, their satellite internet service has some issues working from their house.
“We are just low enough our signal isn’t very strong,” Reinke said.
Zoom meetings with his son’s fifth grade classmates usually required a ride to the nearest hill on their northeastern Nebraska farm and doing the meeting from the cab of Reinke’s pickup. The newer pickup also has its own Wi-Fi signal, so any online schoolwork usually meant a ride in the pickup, he added.
MORE RURAL BROADBAND?
While some rural Americans don’t have access to broadband, other rural folks do. Access has grown, according to the Pew Research Center, but still lags behind urban and suburban areas (here).
According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in early 2019, 63% said they have a broadband internet connection in their home, up from 35% in 2007. However, people who live in rural areas are 12 percentage points less likely to have broadband than their urban counterparts; in 2007 there was a 16-percentage-point gap between rural (35%) and all U.S. adults (51%).
Farmer Michelle Jones, of Broadview, Montana, said her local phone company provided her broadband internet two years ago. Before this, the only way her family could get decent internet from home was a hot spot device.
“It worked good sometimes, but other times it certainly did not,” said Jones, who is a past president of the Montana Grain Growers Association.
Rural broadband also comes with a higher cost for many in rural areas. Jones said she pays $140/month for 50 megabits per second (Mbps) of download speed, while those in town receive 200 mbps and pay roughly $50/month.
Still, she is grateful to her local phone company for deciding to invest in rural broadband in her region of south-central Montana.
Jones said federal grants are really the only way small rural phone companies can run the fiber cables in rural areas for broadband and expect a return on their investment. Without federal support, these companies are not likely to invest in these improvements.
Jones is part of an FCC Advisory Committee, specifically a subcommittee titled Adoption and Jobs Working Group; the subcommittee’s work includes seeing why farmers don’t adopt precision agriculture technologies.
“I was just appointed, but among the things we will be looking at is the lack of high-speed internet in rural areas,” she said.
Dillan Kuehny is a farmer from Caldwell, Kansas. The farm his parents live on is south of Caldwell, just across the state line in Grant County, Oklahoma. Broadband internet came to their region about five years ago, he said.
They rarely have any issues with their internet connection. You buy as much speed as you want, so families with multiple devices can do so without service interruptions, he said.
“I feel very fortunate that KanOkla (local phone company) took the initiative to do their fiber project because I realize many other rural people do not have this luxury,” Kuehny said.
Kuehny said they mainly use the internet on their farm for email, but they also sell hay and breeding bulls online, so they use it to upload pictures and videos. They also use the internet to upload field maps and many other uses, he said.
RURAL LEARNING CHANGES
Back in Nebraska, Reinke is a member of the Neligh-Oakdale Public School Board of Education. He said the Nebraska Department of Education understood what school districts were going through and they advised school districts to do as best as they could once school at home started to take place, he said.
Most of the school district’s students had access to some form of the internet to be able to learn from home. The Wi-Fi signal at the school was adjusted to include the parking lot, so students with internet issues could use this option, he said.
“We had the local internet provider work with our district’s families to make sure the kids could get their schoolwork done,” he said.
While education did continue during the pandemic online, Reinke said he does wonder what effect all of this has had on the learning process for students.
Will all students in a grade, for instance, be at the same general level as their classmates come fall? That is something he doesn’t really know the answer to, he said.
Eifert Jones said one silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic may be the struggles of rural residents to work and learn from home may have opened the eyes of those in leadership positions of how bad rural internet can be. Perhaps more investment in rural internet will be made now, knowing how many people could be working or educating their children from home in the future, she said.
Broadband internet could even be a selling point for those considering moving into rural areas, she said.
Eifert Jones told the story of her sister considering moving back to their home area of north-central Oklahoma. Her sister’s husband had a job that he could work from home, but they required access to high-speed internet.
They considered buying a quarter section of land for sale near the family’s farm operation and building a house. Learn More here about advantages of building a granny flat. Ultimately, they had to live in a town closer to Oklahoma City because of the lack of broadband internet.
“Our rural area missed out having them relocate here all because of weak internet service,” Eifert Jones said. “Yes, farmers need high speed internet to run their operations, but you also need it to attract people to your area.”
DTN Staff Reporter Russ Quinn shares some of his own family’s experiences with internet in a rural area in this week’s Editors’ Notebook blog. See it here.
Russ Quinn can be reached at email@example.com
Follow him on Twitter @RussQuinnDTN