Ben Wilfong leaned toward his computer screen, fingers poised over the mouse and keyboard, ten-gallon hat above his brow. A long list of personal details appeared under the chosen lot—name, date of birth, sire—important things to know when bidding on expensive Black Angus beef cows. The actual cow that was up for auction could be seen in a video next to these stats: a kind of livestock glamour roll of the animal moving through a field. This is farming in the 21st century.
For Wilfong, however, the auction was little more than a mirage. The internet connection on his rural West Virginia farm was so agonizingly slow, there was no way to load the video in enough time to actually see the animal.
“By the time I’ve clicked to bid on cattle, the auction is over,” Wilfong told me recently. “Five seconds is an eternity in an auction. It’s cost me a lot of revenue.”
Wilfong is one of the more than 24 million Americans, or about 8 percent of the country, who don’t have access to high-speed internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)—and that’s a conservative estimate. Most of them live in rural and tribal areas, though the problem affects urban communities, too. In every single state, a portion of the population doesn’t have access to broadband.
The reasons these communities have been left behind are as diverse as the areas themselves. Rural regions like Wilfong’s hometown of Marlinton are not densely populated enough to get telecom companies to invest in building the infrastructure to serve them. Some areas can be labeled as “served” by telecoms even if many homes don’t actually have internet access, as in Sharon Township, Michigan, just a short drive from the technology hub of Ann Arbor. Others are just really far away. These places are so geographically remote that laying cable is physically and financially prohibitive, so towns like Orleans, California, have started their own nonprofit internet services instead.
There are alternative options for internet service, such as satellite dish or fixed wireless. But rarely are these services reliable and fast enough for modern use, and they’re often much more expensive than cable.
This gap, between the internet haves and have-nots, is known as the digital divide. The problem isn’t that these folks are missing out on spending an entire weekend binge-watching the latest season of Stranger Things (though that’s a totally reasonable use of the internet). The problem is that, increasingly, the tools we use in our daily lives are moving online, sometimes exclusively so. Students are assigned internet-based homework. Tax filings and applications for government programs or student loans are more commonly done online—and are processed more quickly than via snail mail.
The economic impacts especially are vast: When was the last time you saw a job posting anywhere other than online? Businesses are less likely to set up shop in areas without good internet access, and realtors say it’s more difficult to sell homes that aren’t connected.
A lack of internet is forcing many young people to move away, fleeing their home states altogether to find modern career opportunities. It prevents areas already hard-hit by the demise of other industries, like coal, from finding new ways to make money online or telecommuting. A lack of internet access hurts businesses, hinders education, prevents people from getting jobs, and can even be life-threatening, as emergency services increasingly rely on internet-connected communications and documentation. The federal government and its agencies for years have promised to invest in internet infrastructure, but progress has not been made fast enough for many rural towns. These communities are left to find a way to bridge this divide themselves, lest the gulf between them and the rest of the country expand even further. Here’s what it looks like from the other side of the digital divide:
Marlinton, West Virginia
Driving through the mountains in Pocahontas County is breathtaking. The highways twist around switchback bends through dense forest and rocky cliff sides. You’ll see plenty of deer, rabbits, and possums, but few other cars. Cell phone service is practically nonexistent. On the radio, when you can get a signal, you’ll hear ads for opioid addiction treatment programs and once a day, the local lost and found bulletin.
More than 60 percent of the roughly 900-square-mile county consists of protected state or federal lands. A population of about 9,000 spreads out over this landscape—about ten residents per square mile. Pocahontas County has a distinctly southern feel: locals speak with a warm, lilting drawl; Civil War trenches still dot the hillsides. And Marlinton, population 1,054, is its largest town.
This place is isolated, not just physically but also by the distinct lack of access to communication technology. As of June 2016, not a single home in Pocahontas County outside of the ski resort has high-speed internet as defined by the FCC: a minimum of 25 megabits per second download speeds and 3 Mbps upload speeds. In most of America, these speeds are pretty standard. In many major cities, access to regular home internet with speeds as high as 100 Mbps or even 1 gigabit per second is common. In Marlinton, what little access many households do have is unreliable, spotty, or slow. A handful of people have no internet at all.
It’s a particularly common problem in West Virginia, where 40 percent of rural residents don’t have access to broadband internet. Only a handful of states have similar or worse connectivity rates. In many cases, the areas are too sparsely populated to be worth the expense of running cable internet for the large telecoms that cover most of the country, like AT&T, Comcast, and Charter. When that happens, wireless internet and cell phone coverage is often the only alternative.
But even those stopgaps are out of reach for parts of Pocahontas County, because it is also home to the Green Bank Telescope, the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope. Used, in part, to listen for signals from intelligent extraterrestrial life, the telescope requires radio silence in the surrounding area to be able to function. It's part of two overlapping radio quiet zones, one federal and one state, that limit the use of electric signals. Within a ten-mile radius of the observatory, people can't use cell phones or WiFi, if it exists, and on site, microwaves are banned.
It means when teenagers in the area want to hang out on the weekend, they aren’t sending each other texts. They still call each other up on landlines.
While the idea of unplugging has a certain shine to it for those of us exhausted by our constant connection, an actual lack of access has serious consequences on the community. In Pocahontas County, the unemployment rate is higher than the national average, for examples, and studies have shown that increased broadband adoption in rural areas has a strong, possibly causal, impact on employment. But aside from the local ski resort, this region has yet to benefit from such a technological boost. Despite the rolling bucolic beauty of the landscape, it makes you wonder why anyone chooses to live here. But when I pose that question to locals, they seemed stunned that I would even ask.
“I don’t want to live in a city, that’s why I’m here,” Wilfong, the cattle farmer, said with a laugh. “It’s beautiful. It’s peaceful. It’s a healthy environment in which to raise your kids. And it’s home.”
Wilfong’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all farmers here, too. This legacy extends so far back that Wilfong’s not sure exactly what generation farmer he is. But I wanted to meet with him to talk about a different role he’s adopted in recent years, one of broadband internet proponent.
“We rely on the internet just as much as we do power, water, phone,” Wilfong told me as we waited for our lunch at a diner in Marlinton. “We’ve reached the period where it’s a necessity for everyday life.”
It impacts the community in a multitude of ways, Wilfong explained, from making it more difficult for students to do their homework and access study resources, to preventing new businesses from opening and existing businesses from succeeding. I learned of one local auto shop where employees had to write down customers’ credit card numbers by hand, and then go to a coffee shop with internet at the end of each day to finally make the charges, hoping they hadn’t made any mistakes. That shop had gone out of business by the time I arrived.
Over at the Pocahontas County Board of Education, a squat, two-story brick building next to the elementary school in Marlinton, Ruth Bland spends her days as the Board's technology coordinator making sure students are able to get online at least while they’re at school. Bland told me that all the schools in the county are equipped with internet, including 1 Gbps fiber access at the sole high school. She estimates that for about 30 percent of students, that’s the only internet access they have at all.
Bland led me past the playground to the single-story school, where we found a class of kindergarteners playing educational games in the computer lab. Some of the youngsters there tell me they have internet at home, others seem unphased as they shake their heads “no.” But as students get older, this lack of access starts to play a more significant role in their education and lives, Bland said.
“We don’t assign as much homework and things online because we understand the instability of the service,” Bland told me. “It isn’t fair to the kids.”
Bland pointed to the SATs as an example. For now, the SATs are still paper-and-pencil tests, but there are multiple online study tools that let students with internet do practice tests and receive study guides. Many Pocahontas County students can’t do this at home, and the schools don’t have enough devices to let the students do it at school. Instead, Bland said the high school is asking students to bring their own devices—smartphones and laptops—and teachers can help them download the material to study at home.
“We’ll be able to do it at the school but I don’t know how well they’ll be able to utilize it at home,” she said. “We’re in uncharted territory.”
Growing up in a rural community, especially one with so much natural beauty, is a privilege I can personally attest to. There’s no reason these students shouldn’t also have the benefit of a fully digital education experience that their peers in other communities have.
In towns where internet access is limited, the local library often becomes a digital oasis. I wanted to see if that was the case in Marlinton, so I popped in unannounced and asked the librarian how many of the visitors come strictly to use the internet. Pulling out a stack of handwritten daily records, we flipped through and were able to see that about a third of the visitors come just to log on. I sat down at one of the computer stations and opened an online speed test. Even there, speeds were far from broadband: 2.31 Mbps download, 0.79 upload. Enough to check your email or go on Facebook, but not much else.
Yet high above the streets of Marlinton, at the Snowshoe Mountain ski resort, another world exists. Fast internet, WiFi, and even cell phone coverage are readily available. In order to retain business from weekend warriors accustomed to consistent connection, the President and COO of the resort has invested heavily in a system that’s custom-built not to interfere with the telescope. It’s the only place in the entire county where my cell phone actually worked.
This recent development demonstrates that it is physically and technologically possible to build reliable, fast internet infrastructure that doesn’t interfere with the Quiet Zone. But in order to create that kind of network in the rest of the county, there needs to be funding, which is why Wilfong has continuously petitioned for help from the state and federal government.
He believes public-private partnership to bring down costs and incentivize telecom companies to invest in rural areas is the best way to ensure that rural areas like Marlinton are not left behind. So far, no concrete plans along those lines have come to fruition at the state or local level. Though locals continue to raise concerns, a solution is nowhere in sight.
The state of West Virginia has long been shaped by extraction. It’s a place that exported its most valuable resources for the benefit and profit of outsiders. First, it was coal and lumber being ferried out of the state in heaping stacks. Now, it’s West Virginians themselves, as young people leave in search of career opportunities, chasing a modern world that might otherwise leave them behind.
“It affects so much of the economy in this county and we’re losing so much,” Wilfong said. “I want my kids to stay here, but at this point there’s not much for me to offer them.”
Sharon Township, Michigan
On Thursday mornings, locals from Sharon Township, Michigan, can drive to the 100-year-old town hall and meet with their local government. The supervisor, planning chair, and zoning administrator all gather at a long wooden table, where they share a box of doughnuts and wait for the heat to kick on. On these days, the township clerk dutifully saws open envelopes containing tax payments from residents and—if it’s anything like the frigid February Thursday when I visited—has to take a break to thaw her fingers, numb from the frozen mail.
The digital divide is perhaps more starkly illustrated here, in Washtenaw County, than anywhere else in the US. Sharon Township is just 30 minutes outside of Ann Arbor, and a little over an hour from Detroit, in the next county over. Its 1,700-odd residents are spitting-distance from some of the most technologically advanced areas of the state, including the University of Michigan. Yet when it comes to internet access, Sharon Township may as well be in the mountains of West Virginia.
On a map showing Michigan’s internet access at the county level, the square representing Washtenaw looks like one of the best-served regions in the state. Fewer than 10 percent of residents don’t have access to broadband internet. But the fact that the city centers are so well-served only makes it more difficult for communities like Sharon Township to get access. Telecom companies aren’t expanding their land-based networks to reach these relatively small markets, and money for rural broadband get earmarked for areas farther away.
“It looks like we’re covered,” said Kathy Spiegel, the Sharon Township Planning Commission Chair. “When Peter [Psarouthakis, the township supervisor] first started going to meetings at the state level, they said Washtenaw County had full coverage and he just kept laughing.”
Spiegel, who grew up in Tennessee and went to grad school in New York City, has lived in Sharon Township for 23 years. She and her late husband raised two children, and several dogs, on their sprawling, wooded lot. For a long time, the lack of internet access was not a dealbreaker, but when Spiegel began working from home as a regulatory writer for pharmaceuticals (first freelance, and now for a California-based company) suddenly it became crucial. For the first few years, without a decent connection at home, Spiegel worked out of coffee shops, or traveled to her cottage in northern Michigan, which, surprisingly, had great internet access.
These days, she relies on a 4G LTE wireless router that gives her sub-broadband speeds: a recent speed test clocked her download speed at 3.57 Mbps. She also has a monthly data cap of 80 GB, after which service is throttled. Now, 80 GB in a month is nothing to sneeze at, but you’d be surprised how quickly it can get eaten up. Netflix estimates an HD stream uses about 3 GB per hour, and Spiegel doesn’t subscribe to the service because she feels she couldn’t get her money’s worth.
Besides, Spiegel works from home, and often has to do video conferences or download large files. Netflix isn’t even an option by the time she gets all her work done. She only treats herself to a streamed TV show or movie at the end of the month if she has bandwidth left over. It’s one of the best setups available in the area, and she pays $450 per month for the privilege.
Meanwhile, just 20 miles away in Ann Arbor, residents have an embarrassment of options for high-speed internet. Fiber optic cable to the home, largely considered the gold standard for internet connections, is widely available. AT&T advertises plans of 1 Gbps for $70 per month and Xfinity advertises 60 Mbps (plus a handful of TV channels) for $45.
Even Chelsea, a small town of about 7,500 just north of Sharon Township, has plentiful high-speed connections. It’s not unusual to spot people from the surrounding communities sitting in parked cars in the library’s lot in the wee hours of the morning, taking advantage of one of the few free high-speed hotspots in the region.
Sharon Township will vote this May on a new tax that, if passed, would fund a fiber internet infrastructure to finally connect residents in an affordable and reliable way. It’s the same conclusion that many other small towns in the area have come to, including Lyndon Township, where last summer residents voted to approve a similar measure. As folks in rural communities so often do, they’ve decided to stop waiting and build what they need themselves.
At Spiegel’s home, as we watched her three dogs whip around in the snow, she told me that, in truth, she doesn’t mind the lack of internet, personally. Spiegel loves the rural township where she chose to settle down, even with its challenges—she shrugged off a massive impending snowstorm during my visit, still planning to make it to her hair appointment the next day. But she worried about the future of the community if things don’t change.
“The issue is very much like rural electrification,” said Spiegel, referring to the federal subsidization of electric infrastructure in the 1930s that ensured all Americans had power. “Areas will die if they don’t get internet. It’s become essential, and if we want to keep a community here, you’ve got to have something.”
It’s not easy to get to the remote town of Orleans, California, but it’s a hell of a journey. To reach it, I drove for three hours on gorgeous, winding highways straight out of a car commercial. As the fog melted away, the sun rose to reveal the forested mountains around the Klamath River—a vista that would make Bob Ross faint. This is the heartland of the Karuk Tribe, one of California’s largest Indigenous communities. And it’s the last place ISPs would ever think of running high-speed internet.
“It was too much cost for not enough profit,” said Dennis “Beau” Donahue, the computer systems technician for the Karuk Tribe. “Without a grant or something, it’s a lot of money to run fiber and the bigger companies won’t see a profit for however many years. They’re just not interested in it.”
For indigenous tribes on sovereign land, legal complexities often mean that communities on reservations have trouble attracting telecom companies. The Karuk Tribe is not on a reservation and so hasn’t had that issue, but it faces a different struggling: being miles and miles away from nowhere.
Donahue toured me around the quiet town of about 600, where the cliché of everybody knowing everybody else proved true. We got warm waves from everyone we passed, half of whom Donahue would then reveal were relatives. Everybody here knows Beau’s name, but he joked that “most people just call me the Áan Chúuphan guy.”
Áan Chúuphan, a Karuk phrase meaning “talking line,” is the name of the Tribal-owned ISP. After years of waiting for internet service to improve, in 2010 the Tribe decided to take matters into its own hands. With the help of a more than $1 million grant from the US Department of Agriculture, the Tribe was able to run fiber optic cable from Somes Bar, a town eight miles north where the Siskiyou Telephone Company already had internet infrastructure, to Orleans. The fiber travels along the mountains, alternating between being buried underground and hung along the power lines. Once the fiber makes it to Orleans, wireless towers placed strategically—on the town water tower, a nearby mountain overview, and the Tribal headquarters in the center of town—beam the signal into customers’ homes. Today, Áan Chúuphan serves more than 100 customers.
Dodging thickets of poison oak, we stomped up hillsides surrounding the town to get close up views of the ISP’s towers. As we stood on one flat, mountain outcrop, Donahue pointed to glimmering shapes dotted through the trees on the other side of the river. These shapes, he explained, were the various rooftops of homes that he had personally connected to the Tribe internet. Not all homes have landlines, he told me, and cell service is only available in a few buildings using the tribe ISP. Some residents live far up in the mountains without even electricity; they use solar panels and generators, but they have the internet.
“It’s a nonprofit ISP and our goal is just to get people internet,” Donahue said. “Getting it out here is pretty important. Even just having a cell phone you can use with WiFi is a huge improvement over nothing.”
The speeds aren’t anything revolutionary: the basic plan provides 1.4 Mbps for $40 per month, and local businesses can get speeds up to 10 Mbps at a rate of $200 per month. And it’s not available to everyone in Orleans yet. Because the ISP is a fixed wireless system, it works best with a direct line of sight between the towers and the customer’s premises. That means homes tucked behind even a single row of trees might not be able to pick up a signal. Instead, they’re stuck with the only other option: satellite internet.
Satellite internet is the sole option for many rural communities. Like TV, it provides signal to homes from geostationary satellites, which means it can reach many of the unserved corners of the country. But it has its limitations: Bad weather can make the signal disappear. It’s slow. And it’s expensive: Donahue says that for many residents of Orleans, satellite internet is out of their budget.
Babbie Peterson lives just down the road from the library-slash-community center where I met Donahue. The manager of the local health clinic in Orleans, Peterson told me the Tribe ISP isn’t able to reach her home, which is surrounded by lush trees. When I visited her in February, she said she was paying $150 per month for satellite service that she called “better than dial-up.”
“There are a lot of people in the area that have limited access to things that most folks take for granted,” Peterson added.
Around midday in Orleans, the sun is just coming up in Guam, where Peterson’s oldest son lives with Marlowe, her faraway grandchild. Though she’s tried doing video chats with the six-year-old, the internet access is too slow and glitchy, an inconvenience that breaks her heart.
“It doesn’t work so good here,” she told me. “It’s really disappointing when you see them and you’re a total stranger to them because they don’t recognize you. I have cousins who can read their grandchildren bedtimes stories [over Skype]. I’m jealous.”
Stories like this make Donahue, who learned his tech skills on the job, more determined to expand the Tribe ISP. He told me his goal is to get everyone in the town who wants internet a connection.
Luckily, his home is close enough to a tower to get the Tribe ISP, so his two sons and two nieces are able to connect to the rest of the world in ways he never imagined as a kid growing up in these mountains. There was a time when he and his wife lived in other parts of the state, but when they were both able to get jobs back home—his wife is a children’s counsellor—they jumped at the chance. Even with all the challenges, the isolation, the remoteness, there’s nowhere else they’d rather be, and they’re determined to close the divide that for so long left their community behind.
“This is where we grew up and this is where all our ceremonial sites are located,” Donahue said. “It’s important for us to be near that. We always knew we were going to live here.”
Before the Rural Electrification Act was passed in 1936, many Americans were on the far side of a different technological divide. Though we take for granted the ubiquity of electricity now, for a long time many Americans were left behind by electric companies that didn’t want to spend the money to power remote, rural, poor, and less-populated areas. Senator George Norris, who represented Nebraska from 1913 until 1943, later recalled in his autobiography that at the time rural Americans had become sharply "conscious of the great gap between their lives and the lives of those whom the accident of birth or choice placed in towns and cities."
It’s difficult not to draw similarities between that “great gap” and the digital divide holding so much of America back today. Many solutions have been proposed, and successfully executed in specific areas, but a widespread, ambitious solution like the Rural Electrification Act is little more than a dream at this point.
Instead, as the internet continues to become more and more vital to daily life, the areas without access drift further away from the rest of the country.
“Our world is a little bit different than everybody else’s,” said Ruth Bland, the school technology coordinator in West Virginia. “We can’t just sit in this county and let the rest of the world go by.”
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