November 28, 2021

Internet a necessity amid order to stay home

man with internet devices

Metro

Rachel Anderson lives on a dead-end street off a dead-end street in the village of McGraw.

She’s not far from the high school, but the area where she lives is a dead zone — for wired internet and for cell service. It’s a little pocket of rural New York that never made it to the 21st century, where the harsh light of the COVID-19 crisis now shines, revealing deficiencies in civic infrastructure. Lack of internet access is one of the big deficiencies — something that those who lack it are now acutely aware of.

Like many Americans, Anderson, the accessibility modification coordinator for Access to Independence in Cortland, now finds herself working at home. But doing even basic things on the internet is incredibly difficult for her because of the slow internet speed.

Normally, Anderson has nothing but a landline telephone. She gets no cell phone reception at her house on her personal cell phone through AT&T, and she was never able to have the wired internet hooked up.

Several companies told her wired service wasn’t available in her area. None of them offered to connect her, but they did want to charge her full price for a package of phone, cable TV and internet, even though they wouldn’t provide internet. She passed.

Now she’s got very limited access thanks to a Verizon hotspot provided through work. But even with that, she can barely get a signal.

In normal circumstances, she’d go to the McGraw library. But she can’t do that now because all the libraries are closed. So she, like many others, is forced into having to work from home without having the ability to do so.

“It’s really frustrating,” she said.

Internet in rural areas — or lack of it — is not just an optional luxury. It’s seen as the necessity it is, for reasons that go beyond working from home.

Households with school-age children are seeing this, as families with minimal internet access scramble to find a solution.

Some families in McGraw, Anderson said, are opting for home assignments with
books and paper.

Kathryn Silliman, an English as a new language teacher in the Homer school district, is seeing this problem with many of her students. Although Homer school has issued Google Chromebooks to all of its students in grades 3-12, not all of them can get them online. Silliman said that only three out of her 11 students have reliable internet connections.

Of the remaining eight students, only one has a solid internet connection, but she has to go to a lunchroom at the farm where her father works to access it.

Another student can text information back and forth. Yet that student’s family has three other kids, but only two cell phones, and the older kids resent having to share the phones.

Silliman said that online education is a great idea in theory, but flawed in practice if not everyone has reliable access to the internet.

“It’s affecting a lot of kids,” she said, and not just her students. “What’s our community going to do to pressure the companies to get broadband out there?”

Truxton Supervisor Lloyd Sutton said his community has grappled with lack of rural internet access for a while now.

“Broadband access has been a big issue out here,” Sutton said. “We’ve been working on this for at least three years. It’s been a real education.”

He said Spectrum failed his town completely, while Verizon provided high speed broadband to a few select areas.

Now a new company, Clarity Connect, has said it will provide broadband to a greater area of the town as part of the last round of the New NY Broadband Program.

While Sutton is optimistic, he’s a bit disillusioned from years of watching telecom companies failing to deliver on their promises.

But even if Clarity Connects does everything it says it will, broadband will still not be available everywhere in Truxton, or elsewhere in the greater Cortland area.

The New NY Broadband Program, which, according to its website, promises “Broadband for All,” may get rural New York closer to that goal, but it’s not going to cover everybody.

Loren Sparling, a Dryden town board member, already knows this. Now that municipal meetings are moving online, Sparling, like other Dryden board members, was asked to join a virtual board meeting March 19 on Zoom.

But, like Anderson, Sparling lives in a dead zone. So he couldn’t do it from home, and had to go elsewhere to join in.

Someplace else turned out to be his partner’s parents’ house in McGraw. Unlike Rachel Anderson, they have reliable internet access.

So in order to attend a virtual meeting for the Dryden town board, Sparling had to drive from Ed Hill Road in Freeville, just a few miles from Dryden, all way to McGraw to participate in something taking place on the internet. Which is ridiculous, he said, but that’s life in a rural internet dead zone.

Jason Leifer, the town’s supervisor, couldn’t come up with a better scenario for demonstrating why Dryden is pursuing its own municipal broadband service. Dryden aims to run fiber optic cable to every house and business in town and become its own internet service provider. If the plan stays on track, Dryden would become the first town in the state to do this.

The public health emergency presented by the new coronavirus just makes the need for rural broadband more obvious, Leifer said.

Municipal broadband “would solve the problem, period,” he said. “Because everyone would have access.”

Unlike the New NY Broadband Program, Dryden’s planned service would go everywhere in town. There would be no gaps, something that no private company has offered to do.

“To be connected in today’s society you need to have access,” Leifer said. “Everyone needs to have access. That’s really what it comes down to. The current system doesn’t facilitate that at all. We think we can do a lot better by offering a municipal service that provides faster speeds and lower cost.”