I spend more time on the internet than I'd ever care to admit, and I can think of only a few things I do that do not, at some point, involve a Google search. I used the internet to write reports and complete homework assignments as a child, to submit college applications, to spend hours clicking through Westlaw, and here I am now, writing this blog--on the internet. I, sadly, cannot imagine how I would have done many of these things without access to reliable internet. Yet, for many places in rural America, access to reliable internet, or any access at all, is not a current reality. This post aims to briefly touch on a few of the private programs and public proposals to bring broadband access to rural communities.
One Example of Rural Internet Access
In Letcher County, Kentucky, one woman commented that her college-age son doesn't come home often because he can't complete his school assignments at home without reliable internet. The closest reliable Wi-Fi is a 25-minute drive to the nearest McDonald's. Another resident described their internet as like "being trapped on an island with a bad two-way radio." Letcher County ranks in the bottom 10% of the nation's broadband infrastructure, with broadband access for only 1% of the county's land area.
Letcher county is one of many rural communities that are developing proposals for the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utility Service program. Unfortunately, RUS is one of the programs that the new administration may be eliminating.
In March, House Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats offered five bills intended to bring broadband services to rural areas. One bill would require the FCC to improve the way they collect data on mobile coverage in rural areas, one would give credits for broadband access to displaced workers, one would to allow low-income students to use their parents' subsided internet service, and another would require the FCC to expand broadband access to tribal lands. Representative Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ) highlighted the importance of expanding access to the internet: "Broadband offers more opportunities for more people--whether it's getting a better education, applying for new jobs, or training for a new career."
A number of private companies have also started to expand services in rural and remote areas. One program I found particularly interesting was Wi-Fi enabled busses for students in rural areas.
In Berkeley County, South Carolina, some students spend over two hours a day on a bus to and from school due to the size of the sprawling, rural school district. Last month, Google introduced 28 Wi-Fi-equipped school buses and 1,700 Chromebooks for the 2,000 students in Berkeley County. Now, the two-hour bus commute is a time that students can use the Chromebooks to get online and complete assignments or catch up on school work. The idea mirrors the Silicon Valley phenomenon of tech companies providing Wi-Fi-enabled busses for employees commuting from San Fransisco so that employees can use the commuting hours to work instead of sit in traffic.
Google refers to the school bus program as a "Rolling Study Hall" that hopes to "bridge the digital divide" in the school district by acting as "an extended classroom" and addressing "the needs of students that don't have WiFi or Internet access in their home." Google is also looking for ways to expand the use of the high-tech busses. When they aren't shuttling students, they might go to places such as community centers of fellowships halls so that other members of the community can take advantage of the internet access.
Berkeley County is not the first, and probably not the last, school district to have the "Rolling Study Hall" program. The first program was in the Appalachian foothills in Caldwell County, North Carolina. Google also has data centers in both of these counties, and hopes to expand the program to other rural locations soon.