Teleworking in a parking lot, school on a flash drive: Pandemic prompts new urgency for rural internet access.
Jason Onorati moved to rural Powhatan, Va., 23 years ago, when he didn't need the internet to raise a family.
He lives with his young son and his 2-year-old granddaughter on a gravel dead-end road on the edge of town, one of many pockets of rural America that lack reliable WiFi. Here, there is no access to video calls, no Netflix or online billing, except via cellphone. Teleworking, online doctor's appointments and remote school are nearly impossible.
"I'm three-tenths of a mile from the road, which is why I can't get Comcast," Onorati said. "They want to charge by the foot. We're talking thousands of dollars."
The coronavirus pandemic has drawn new attention to this long-standing problem, with local and federal lawmakers and candidates in Virginia demanding funding and legal changes to bring broadband to an estimated half-million state residents.
In a debate last month, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., compared the need for nationwide broadband deployment to rural electrification in the 1930s. His Republican opponent, Daniel Gade, compared it to the construction of the country's interstate highway network in the 1950s.
To the unconnected, the lack of progress is confounding.
"We're trying to send people to Mars, but we can't get our own population connected to the network?" said Gregory Goergen, who has sometimes gone with his children to a Sheetz parking lot to get work done online. Every day, he said, he and his wife consider packing up and leaving Powhatan -- but they worry that without high-speed internet access, they won't be able to sell the house.
A cocktail of problems has blocked people like Goergen and Onorati from high-speed internet: flawed maps, a lack of economic incentives for telecommunications giants, and rudimentary, outdated infrastructure far behind that of urban areas.
"There's no business interest in bringing high-speed internet to some of the communities I represent," said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., whose district includes Powhatan, "which is why there has been internet for 20 years just over the border in the county that's more suburban -- and a couple miles down the road it's just not an option."
In Powhatan County, about 33 miles west of the capital, Richmond, one in four rural residents lack a sound connection. Schools Superintendent Eric Jones said some parents decided to home-school their children this year since they could not participate virtually. In nearby Culpeper County, Supervisor Tom Underwood, R, said some residents are parked all day outside the library to work from their cars.
Christopher Ali, a communications policy professor at the University of Virginia, said Congress needs to "put its money where its mouth is" and take the lead in an all-hands effort, involving local and state governments and the private sector.
"It is too expensive and too resource-intensive to let it go to any one entity," Ali said. "This is our lifeline to the world."
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Over the past decade, the federal government has invested tens of billions of dollars in expanding high-speed internet access -- and yet the digital divide seems to be growing. "As rural communities are getting connected, urban communities are jumping ahead with the deployment of fiber and 5G," Ali said.
Members of Congress representing Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Illinois, among others, wrote in an April letter to leadership that the coronavirus "has shone a bright spotlight on the disparities that exist across the country between those who have broadband and those who do not."
The lawmakers -- Democrats and Republicans -- asked for "a historic investment in our nation's e-connectivity."
House Democrats passed an $80 billion package to deploy broadband coast to coast as part of the Moving Forward Act, in line with a Federal Communications Commission estimate for what it could cost to achieve universal broadband connection. An additional $20 billion would go toward subsidizing broadband access for low-income families and other initiatives to increase digital equity. But the proposal has struggled to gain GOP support.
Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, both Republicans from South Carolina, joined Warner in introducing a $10 billion broadband proposal in the Senate, with Graham noting that some of his unconnected constituents "might as well be on the moon."
Spanberger and Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., both members of the House Rural Broadband Caucus, said the flawed maps used by the FCC are one reason the government has lagged in flagging unserved communities.
The maps identify serviced areas by magisterial district or census tract rather than by household or neighborhood. "If there is a single home served in the magisterial district, the maps say everyone is served," said Wittman, who co-chairs the broadband caucus. "And then you can't get money to serve those areas through grant programs."
The FCC has acknowledged issues and is working to improve the maps, while Wittman and Spanberger have put forth legislation to codify changes.
Kristie Fox, a spokeswoman for Comcast, said the company is constantly evaluating how to best serve "as many customers as is geographically and economically feasible."
"However," she added, "there are some low-density areas where it is operationally difficult for Comcast or any provider to build out."
If residents who live in those "last mile" areas want high-speed internet, telecommunications companies may ask them to foot the bill for installation costs, which can cost a neighborhood block tens of thousands of dollars.
Powhatan residents know the frustration. Hanna Mauck said she and her neighbors would have had to put up roughly $8,000 per household to get Verizon to install high-speed internet.
"Who are they to determine who gets access and who doesn't?" Mauck said.
Some solutions exist in the form of government intervention or assistance from a nonprofit provider, such as the Central Virginia Electric Cooperative. The government can offer grants to localities or private companies to cover front-end construction, which Fox said makes it far more cost-efficient for Comcast or others to serve rural areas.
The Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI), which requires a public-private partnership, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's ReConnect program both use that model.
Spanberger led a bipartisan group of lawmakers in protecting the ReConnect program when its funding was threatened last year and sponsored legislation to add tens of millions of dollars to the program.
In January, the FCC announced its largest-ever investment in broadband, $20.4 billion. But Ali and Evan Feinman, chief broadband adviser to Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, D, say they are skeptical of how efficiently the federal agency will use the funds.
Feinman said states have more intimate knowledge of on-the-ground conditions and can complete projects faster. Right now, he said, there are twice as many grant applications through VATI than there are funds available.
He wants Washington to offer large block grants to states, which could replicate VATI's public-private partnership model. A proposal by Wittman -- co-sponsored by Reps. Elaine Luria, D-Va., and Bill Johnson, R-Ohio -- would do just that, creating a five-year, $500 million block-grant pilot program to fund broadband infrastructure.
By contrast, Wittman's Democratic challenger, human rights lawyer Qasim Rashid, put forth a plan that would assist municipalities in founding their own broadband authorities, sidestepping the need for partnerships or the problem of private companies avoiding sparsely populated areas.
Ali said such proposals are also an important piece of the puzzle, for areas too remote to be able to partner with any internet service provider.
As residents wait for congressional action, they are relying on short-term fixes.
Jones, the Powhatan superintendent, said the school district provided mobile hotspots to more than 300 students, in part using Cares Act coronavirus relief funding. Some school buses with mobile hotspots park in church lots, where students can go to submit homework.
But the hotspots don't work for everyone.
Mauck, for example, must drive to her in-laws' house, a half-hour away, when she has an important teleconference for work. Her second-grade son is able to attend school in person now, but in the spring, his hotspot connection was so slow that he typically had to wait up to 10 minutes for a single Web page to load.
"I've thought about going to a local Dunkin' Donuts, but I don't really want to do that with the pandemic going on," Mauck said. "It's just become a way of life. We don't have any other options out here."
Onorati said the school system provided a hotspot and a laptop for his son, 11-year-old Bryson, but the hotspot worked only half the time.
Since classes resumed this fall, Bryson has spent three days a week working from home on assignments loaded onto a USB drive by his teachers. He attends Powhatan Middle School for in-person classes on Thursdays and Fridays and gets a new load of assignments on the USB drive for the following week.
"I'm feeling that he's fallen behind," Onorati said. He said he understands that private companies need financial incentives to provide service, "but at the same time, we're all still people, and we all still need the same thing for our kids."
Powhatan and numerous other Virginia counties are also using Cares Act funds for small broadband projects -- serving a few blocks at a time -- that must be completed by Dec. 30. Northam set aside $30 million in state Cares Act funds last week to help them.
Recently, Mauck learned that her family would be among the lucky households to get service by the end of the year -- something she credits to her and other residents' relentless attendance at county board meetings.
She brought her pleas to a virtual meeting in June. Her voice flitted in and out as her internet connection waned.
To the officials on the other end of the line, however, her message could not have been clearer.