BAILEYTON — Lack of high speed, broadband internet has long been a problem in the Baileyton area.
“We’ve been talking about this forever,” said Baileyton Mayor Johnny Dyer. “This is something that needs to be done. There are just certain areas they don’t want to invest in unless it’s widely populated and they just don’t want to spend any money on towns that don’t have but a few people in it. They want to use the big towns and the most populated areas.”
Dyer adds that the problem isn’t just Baileyton. “All this needs to be done for the whole state,” he said.
He’s not wrong. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), about 56 percent of Alabama’s rural residents lack high speed internet.
So it was already a problem, or at least an inconvenience. Then you throw in a pandemic which sends people home to work and students home from school and it becomes a much greater problem.
That’s when it becomes clear that high speed internet access is no longer a “nice to have,” but a must have.
Lynnette Ryan’s home is two miles from Spectrum service, the closest service available to her. Without access to broadband, she and her husband have been using hotspots on their cell phones.
“For me it is super frustrating,” she said. “Before all this COVID-19 stuff it would be more of a luxury to have it because my kids have tablets and our Dish has the capabilities of connecting to the internet as well. For the last month I have had to work from home and I have only been able to use my hotspot to connect to my laptop. When the 30 Mbps (megabytes per second) runs out, I am constantly getting booted off my laptop because it is so slow and my kids can not connect at all to their tablets to watch videos, movies or do any kind of school work.”
Rachel Bryant says she was warned. When she moved from Cullman to Baileyton to live with her now-husband, he told her the connection was not what she was used to.
The head of the nonprofit Karma in Cullman, Bryant works from home on the computer quite a bit. But she discovered even though they have internet access through AT&T, the speed and bandwidth isn’t the same. “You can’t do more than one thing at a time,” she said.
“In your mind you can’t even comprehend that there is a difference, because you’re kind of spoiled,” she said of moving from one digital environment to another. “It’s another world. You don’t understand the difference. When you’re used to those high speeds and then you move out here where there’s nothing.”
If they want to watch a show on Netflix or Hulu, they have to decide as a family what it’s going to be because they can’t have multiple devices going at the same time. Her husband, who enjoys video games, plays after everyone goes to bed so he’s not competing with the television. She said they’re getting download speeds of about 12 Mbps. The FCC defines broadband speed as at least 25 Mbps, with an upload speed of 3 Mbps.
“When he wants to download a new game, it takes forever,” she said. “He got a new one for Christmas and it took two days download.”
Bryant was also surprised to discover they’re paying more than she did in the city. “We pay more for really slow internet than I paid Spectrum in the city for super fast internet. I don’t understand it. We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t get some faster internet out in the county somewhere.”
She said when schools shut down, her first thought was the rural students. “That was my first panic when school let out and they were going to go back online. I was like, some of these county children are in trouble because there is no way they’re getting the internet they need,” she said.
It’s a situation Debra and Glenn Miller know well. Residents of the area for about a year, Debra recently graduated with a degree in medical assistant technology. Many of her classes were online.
“One of the biggest challenges I had was I had some online courses, and when the internet goes out, I was stuck,” she said. “I could not move forward in those courses. I would have to contact my instructor and explain to him what was going on. He’d have to reopen it for me so I could try to complete it.”
Telecommunications companies often advertise download speeds, important for watching videos, downloading documents and loading websites. But when people are working from home or taking online courses, upload speeds become equally important. With less than 1 Mbps upload speed, Glenn said it once took him six hours to upload a 20 minute video.
Glenn is an electronics technician with 20-plus years experience in telecommunications in Huntsville. He’s seen the industry change dramatically over the years. “Now, more and more people are working from home and they’re sending larger and larger files. I fear what’s going to happen, once all my children get into high school, is they’re going to have to send extremely large packets to their instructors. It’s going to take them hours and hours and hours just to send the materials.”
During the pandemic, Veterans Hospitals are encouraging more telemedicine rather than in-person visits. Glenn, a disabled veteran, had his last appointment via telephone. His internet won’t support a video conference. “I don’t know about you, but if a doctor is trying to diagnose me, I want them to see me clearly,” he said.
The Millers have internet through AT&T and get about 16 Mbps download speed, Glenn said. But even if they got the speed the FCC defines as broadband, it wouldn’t be enough. “In business, in today’s fast paced world, that’s not going to cut the mustard,” he said.
Others agree. In a filing with the FCC last November, Common Cause, Public Knowledge and Next City Centuries asked the agency to reclassify broadband as 100 Mbps.
“Communities also increasingly depend on faster broadband speeds to access high-bandwidth applications such as educational, entrepreneurial, and Telehealth services, including in rural areas and low-income areas that are underserved,” they wrote. “Telehealth services provide a way to lower medical costs for families living in areas without adequate healthcare services; however, unreliable and costly broadband impact rural communities’ ability to benefit from these services.”
Glenn said low internet speeds in rural areas are going to leave the kids from those areas behind as technology increasingly relies on faster internet. “My children, the children in Baileyton, the children in Joppa, Holly Pond, Egypt, all these small towns, all these children in these areas are going to suffer in the long term because once they get out in the real world they’re not going to have the experience with the technology that urban kids have,” he said.
“A lot of times, especially out here, if you’re taking any kind of online classes, it doesn’t matter if it’s college or your general education, it is extremely difficult to do. If you have everybody on the internet, forget it. You aren’t going to be able to get it done,” added Debra.
Vance Easterwood, a 40-year resident in the area, said when it comes to technology, “We’ve been living in the dinosaur age for a while.”
“I signed up for Fusion with Verizon, it’s actually a cellphone in itself, basically on the outside of the house,” he said. “It does okay. It’s limited. There’s a number of bytes and then it slows down. There’s no way it could support live streaming of television or anything like that. It’s basically one step above a modem.”
He’s reached out to AT&T to ask for service, but they “don’t quite reach where I’m at. I hit them up every now and then.”
Michael Burgess is also reaching out to companies to ask for service. “I make repeated phone calls to anyone that’s even remotely close to service the area,” he said. “I think it’s been a few years back, a group of us went to the Charter (Spectrum) office one by one to tell them we’re interested.”
“It’s very frustrating,” he added.
He and his wife moved to the area because they wanted their children to go to Fairview High School. The family went from having internet speeds of 100 Mbps to none at all. “For two years, we had nothing,” he said. “If there was school work to be done, it had to be done on a cell phone. Or we would have to pack up and drive to somewhere that has wifi.” Often, that could mean a 30-minute drive.
He’s currently on fixed wireless from AT&T, but continues to seek out other options. “My kids go to a 5A high school; it’s one of the largest in the county. So it’s really sad to think that they go to a 5A school, yet are deprived of what the rest of the county gets,” he said.
Congressman Robert Aderholt, who served as chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, agrees that the pandemic has highlighted the long-standing disparity in internet availability in rural areas.
“The coronavirus really has exposed this vulnerability in rural America, which really has existed for a long time, but many in the public didn’t see it because you didn’t have worry about kids not being able to learn if they didn’t have a computer or internet access,” said Aderholt. “People were going to the doctor as normal; now you’re having Telehealth.”
As technology advances, he said, the rural areas have to be brought up to the same level and urban areas. “In the past few years, you’ve really had two Americas. You’ve had one America that has broadband internet and you had another America that does not have broadband internet. And with today’s technology, the way the world is going, it’s almost unthinkable that you would have parts of this country that don’t have access to broadband internet.”
The federal government, through the FCC and the USDA have been funding grants through the Connect and ReConnect programs, respectively. He said the ReConnect program is, “Looking to try to put the rural areas in step with the larger cities.”
That would be a welcome step for Mayor Dyer, who notes that rural children are being left behind.
“There’s just not enough money being spent in the rural areas, especially in small towns, where these kids have a chance. It’s not their fault that they’re not going to school,” he said. “There needs to be more money spent.”
In the next Weekend Edition: How grant programs are used to expand rural broadband.