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Stay-At-Home Orders Highlight Internet Inequality In The Rural West

A road near rural Chugwater, Wyoming.
Madelyn Beck
Mountain West New Bureau
A road near rural Chugwater, Wyoming.

As so many telecommuters, teachers, college students and children work and learn from home, there have been fears that the Internet wouldn't be up to the task. But so far, it seems to be largely coping with the increased traffic.

Click 'play' to hear the audio version of this story.

And that's a relief to many of us.

"More than 9 in 10 Americans say that a major interruption in their Internet or cell phone service during the Coronavirus outbreak would be a problem for them," said Monica Anderson with the non-profit Pew Research Center.

Anderson co-authored a survey looking at our relationship with Internet access during the pandemic.

There was an interesting twist: Rural Americans were less likely to rate an interruption of service as very important.

"And that really harks to some of our other data before the coronavirus that shows that rural Americans are still less likely to say they have a smartphone or to have a high-speed Internet connection at home," Anderson said.

In other words, interruption of service is important to fewer of them because many didn't have great service in the first place.

That could also explain this survey result: "When we asked about whether or not people had used the Internet to search for information about the coronavirus, about 60% of rural Americans said that they did this – so still a majority. But when you look at people who live in the suburbs or urban areas that share is closer to 75%," Anderson said.

The reality is getting high-speed Internet connections continues to be a challenge for rural areas.

"There's no question that in rural states like Idaho and Montana and Wyoming ... there is a significant challenge there, and I would share that there is also a challenge in other states across the country," said Guy Cherp with the Internet provider Cox.

His company and several others are offering reduced-cost or temporarily free plans so kids can get online and do their homework during the pandemic. And they're giving advice on how to increase speeds when everyone is home. Of course that only works well if your area actually has the high-speed access in the first place.

Broadband is available to about 85 percent of Americans, according to Cherp.

Federal Communications Commission estimates are even higher than that – but it's not clear that either figures are accurate.

"In the past, Internet service providers have self-reported where their Internet service coverage is, and there's no way to kind of test that and go against what the FCC says is covered," said Debra Hansen, who directs Washington State University’s extension program.

Hansen points to faulty FCC data where she lives Stephens County, in northeastern Washington.

"On the FCC map, it says that we are 100% covered by 100 [megabits per second] up and 100 megabits down," she said. "And that's – we just know that's not true.”

Hansen said new technology is on the horizon that could show actual Internet speeds, and such information could allow communities to apply for grants to get better connections.

But the COVID crisis isn't waiting for that. And it's highlighting just how challenging limited Internet access can be for telecommuting or for kids who need it for schoolwork.

"I have a friend whose kids have Chromebooks from school, but they live in a kind of dip in a valley, so they don't have Internet or cell service, so they have to drive to school and download homework every day," Hansen said.

Community hotspots – like a parking lot where people can drive up and get WiFi – are one way to provide fast help. And internet service providers are trying to help with those, too. But they are temporary solutions. Hansen hopes the pandemic will show people just how vital high-speed Internet access is for education and even public health.

"Telehealth is so important to COVID because you don't want people going into town or driving into the city and exposing them to COVID or themselves to COVID and bringing it back," Hansen said. "It's such a transportable problem.”

And she believes there's no reason we shouldn't all be pulling together to make this happen.

"It seems like we should be able to figure this out as a country," she said.

Find reporter Madelyn Beck on Twitter @MadelynBeck8

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Do you have questions about COVID-19? How has this crisis affected you? Our reporters would love to hear from you. You can submit your question or share your story here.

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio News

Madelyn Beck is a regional Illinois reporter, based in Galesburg. On top of her work for Harvest Public Media, she also contributes to WVIK, Tri-States Public Radio and the Illinois Newsroom collaborative.
Madelyn Beck
Madelyn Beck is Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. She's from Montana but has reported everywhere from North Dakota to Alaska to Washington, D.C. Her last few positions included covering energy resources in Wyoming and reporting on agriculture/rural life issues in Illinois.