Leer en Español

When a district survey asked if students had internet access at home, Jessica Robinson responded that her elementary-aged daughter did not. Along Highway 410 west of Naches, satellite service is their only option — and they pay for the service. But it cuts out frequently if more than one cellphone is connected or if a neighbor starts streaming a show, she said.

Robinson said her parents across Yakima County in Wapato, where her daughter will spend school days, don’t have an internet subscription.

Less than 2 miles from Pasco High School, where he teaches technology and physics, John Weisenfeld and his neighbors live in an internet gap. Broadband service reaches some of his neighbors, but on his cul-de-sac of 10 early-2000s homes, no infrastructure was laid to support the same service.

It could be fixed, he’s been told, for a construction fee of $21,000 for the street plus an internet subscription. But in preparation for a new school year taught off-campus — at least until COVID-19 trends improve — he’s trying to find a more sustainable solution.

Students and teachers across Washington are preparing for a new school year, which for most will be remote because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the spring, school districts solved a big barrier to remote learning by hustling up thousands of laptop computers and tablets, and while some gaps still remain, access to a device has largely been solved.

But access to fast, reliable internet? That’s a much more challenging problem, especially in rural areas, where the physical lines to connect people to the web often do not exist, are prohibitively expensive to build and are beyond the purview of school districts.

This story is part of a series about what it’s like to go back to school during a pandemic.

As a stopgap measure, libraries, colleges, school districts and community organizations have jacked up the power and broadcast Wi-Fi signals into parking lots. Some districts have supplied families with Wi-Fi hotspots. Federal CARES Act money will be used this year to extend service to families who can’t afford it.

No one has completed an official survey of connectivity among rural school districts, said Kevin Jacka, chief executive officer of statewide education group The Rural Alliance. But in a recent conversation with more than 20 of the group’s 80 district members, all but one or two said that less than 50% of their student population had internet at home, he said. Jacka said most of these districts were in the north central and northeastern part of the state.

The statewide picture is just as fuzzy. One broadband association, using data from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), estimates that 94% of Washingtonians have access to fast broadband service. But the state’s broadband office says that number is almost surely wrong.

Portable hot spot: In the spring, the state Commerce Department set up 600 free drive-in Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the state. Some school districts are distributing mobile hot spots for families that don’t have access to internet. They can also be purchased.

Mobile data: Mobile data can also be used as a hot spot to a device in lieu of an internet connection.

Preloaded devices or USBs: Some schools are preloading lessons onto devices or USBs for students so that they can complete and return work for grading without needing internet.

Some libraries, colleges, school districts and community organizations have strengthened their broadband capacity so they can be accessed from parking lots.

Federal CARES Act money is expected to help pay for internet subscriptions for upwards of 50,000 Washington families within range of internet service.

Russ Elliott, who heads the office, estimates only about half of Washington households have access to fast broadband.

The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction relies on districts to report student technology access, and expects updated reports by the end of the month to determine where funds are needed.

The FCC calculates broadband accessibility by census block, but in rural areas, census blocks can be huge. The way access is counted has funding ramifications, Elliott said; for example, Stevens, Pend Oreille and Ferry counties aren’t eligible for federal funding to help expand access, yet all three are sparsely populated. Stevens has a population density of about 18 people per square mile, Pend Oreille has nine per square mile and Ferry County has three per square mile.

That’s why Elliott’s office, which is part of the state Department of Commerce, started a broadband access and speed survey this summer to more accurately count who has high-speed access, and how much it costs.

Not surprisingly, the data collected so far shows connectivity is excellent along the Interstate 5 corridor and near major population centers, and poor or nonexistent in rural areas in both Eastern and Western Washington.

“Rural communities with low population densities are never going to pencil out” for internet service providers, said Lisa Brown, who directs the state’s Department of Commerce. She described it as “the classic last mile problem,” where the last mile of service is always the most expensive to provide.

What it could take to expand service

Elliott says it could cost as much as $3.5 billion to extend high-quality service to every part of the state. His definition of broadband is generous — speeds of 150 megabits per second for both uploads and downloads. He acknowledges it’s an ambitious standard. (Currently, the FCC says a student or a telecommuter needs between 5 and 25 megabits per second to study or work online.)

And connections that people do have are being strained, as more people are using the same connection during remote learning or working. Connections become useless, Jacka said, because they’re either too slow or they disconnect frequently under the strain.

Mandy Manning, the state and national teacher of the year in 2018, loses her internet connection two or three times a day in Spokane. “For a period of time, it wouldn’t even stay on for a full 30 minutes,” said Manning, who says she has high-speed internet and has replaced her modem three times.

Internet service stutters even in some parts of King County. A recent county study found that 20% of households are underserved — they either have no broadband service, or have service that is underused, expensive or slow. While it’s hard to know what the breakdown looks like here, the Pew Research Center reported that in 2019, 92% of white adults nationwide used the internet, compared with 85% of Black adults and 86% of Latino people.

In rural Sunnyside, host to Yakima County’s second-largest district, Superintendent Kevin McKay gave a rough estimate that 5% to 10% of the 6,800-person student body doesn’t have an internet connection at home.

“It’s difficult to get really good data, because most of the way we’re trying to get the data is through the use of the internet,” McKay said. “You can’t reach those who don’t [have internet]. We try to call them and identify those, but that is a huge venture.”

Federal subsidies would help

There are workarounds, such as wireless internet providers, and they cover a large portion of Yakima County, including rural communities, said Forbes Mercy, owner of local company Washington Broadband. But areas with dense trees or hills — like north Tampico or Nile on the way to Mount Rainier from Yakima — can’t get a strong connection within the frequency limits outlined by the FCC. Even satellite connections are spotty, so many of these residents settle for connections through phone lines.

What they need, Mercy said, is government subsidies to incentivize providers to build wireless infrastructure to homes in these low-density communities.

That’s one of the aims of the broadband access survey, Elliott said. With better data about who does and does not have affordable service, or any service at all, the state will be able to use its data to apply for federal grants and other subsidies, and also push providers — who have long-term contracts with public entities, like schools or community hospitals — to serve the surrounding community.

“They’ve grabbed the lucrative business,” Brown said of those providers, and now it’s time for them to offer to extend that service, perhaps with the help of public utility districts or rural co-ops.

The Yakima Valley Community Foundation is spearheading an effort to get 95,000 residents to take the access survey to reveal the valley’s service gaps. That data could help the valley secure funding to build infrastructure where there are holes, said Sharon Miracle, president and CEO of the foundation

Extending broadband to hard-to-reach rural areas will take years. In the short term, this spring the state Commerce Department set up 600 free drive-in Wi-Fi hotspots. Most are located in the parking lots of public libraries, and others in rural landmarks — at the Beehive Grange in Wenatchee, at the end of the pavement on South Main Street in Methow, near the soccer fields in Oroville, at the Aeneas Church in Tonasket.

Sunnyside strengthened the bandwidth of its school internet so students can connect from the parking lot. It’s not ideal, said McKay, “but we thought it might be helpful for at least some.”

In Quincy, a rural district east of the Columbia River in Grant County, some teachers with no internet access worked out of a school parking lot this spring, said Camille Jones, the district’s technology coach.

The affordability issue

Another barrier is financial. Low-income families can’t afford monthly subscriptions that can cost over $50. But Mercy, with Washington Broadband, said since the spring, his company has connected well over 100 families with the internet for the first time, providing two months of free service during initial school closures. The vast majority, he said, have maintained their connection even after the promotion lapsed. Some were paid for by their local school district.

Comcast recently rolled out a new version of its 10-year-old Internet Essentials program to provide broadband access for low-income families at $9.95 a month, including two months of free service for new customers. To meet the qualifications, families must be eligible to receive, or are receiving, public assistance benefits from programs such as SNAP and Medicaid. What’s new: The company is partnering with nonprofits and school districts such as Seattle, and estimates that more than 200,000 Washington households are eligible. And Xfinity, part of Comcast, made its hotspots free through the end of the year.

In early August, OSPI announced $8.8 million in federal CARES Act funding would pay for internet plans and technology for low-income families for a year. State schools chief Chris Reykdal said it would cover internet connections for families already in range but unable to afford the monthly fee. OSPI estimates that 50,000 to 60,000 students could be eligible.

Other barriers

Beyond access and cost, there are other problems with remote learning that can stymie parents. Jones, the Quincy technology coach and 2017 state teacher of the year, says her district has worked to streamline the learning platform and make the computers easy to navigate for parents who are not used to sitting behind a computer.

The rural area is dominated by agriculture, and many students are the children of farmworkers. “Most of our families are very uncomfortable with the devices — they’re afraid they’ll break them,” she said.

Manning, of Spokane, worries about homeless students with no place to set up a laptop, much less get an internet signal. And she worries about immigrant parents who struggle to master technology in a language they don’t speak.

Weisenfeld, the Pasco High teacher with no home internet, spent considerable time on campus last spring to create and upload videos for students or have class video conferences. For a while, his family left the state to stay at a rental with an internet connection, where he was able to teach remotely without the same hitches.

As he sought to devise his own workarounds, he came across a glimmer of hope for a more stable solution: After telling Spectrum representatives that he was in conversation with reporters, he said he was told the company might consider covering the construction cost on his block.

But that’s just for one street.