This article is produced in collaboration with Making Connections News and WMMT-FM.
Tina Sparkman wishes her son could come home more often to visit, but unreliable and slow access to the internet means he can’t get his college coursework completed while he’s at his mother’s house in Eastern Kentucky.
“It’s a hardship that we don’t get to see him as much,” Sparkman said. “The majority of the reason is because he can’t get internet here.”
To turn in an assignment, Sparkman’s son can try his mom’s satellite connection. “If the wind’s blowing, the satellite isn’t working,” she said.
The fallback plan is a 25-minute drive to the nearby county seat of Whitesburg, where the McDonald’s offers wifi.
LISTEN: Making Connections News filed this report on WMMT-FM
For Sparkman’s son still in high school, even simple assignments become a chore without adequate internet access. “A lot of the classes at school now don’t have textbooks, because they say, ‘Oh, you can find that information online.’ Well my son lives on Linefork and he can’t find that information online. “
Sparkman attended a community forum on broadband earlier this year at the Campbell’s Branch Community Center in Letcher County, Kentucky. The Letcher County’s Broadband Committee held the forum to get a sense of the need for broadband in that part of the county. The information was also going to be part of a broadband proposal to the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utility Service, which supports broadband projects in rural areas. RUS is one of the programs areas earmarked for elimination in the president’s budget proposal.
Letcher County ranks in the bottom 10 percent of the nation in broadband infrastructure, according to Roberto Gallardo, an associate professor with the Mississippi State Extension Tech Outreach. Only a fifth of households have connections at speeds of 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps up. Just 1 percent of the county has broadband as defined by the Federal Communications Commission (25 Mbps down/3 up).
In the communities around Linefork and Skyline, the commission found 600 households defined as “unserved” by broadband, meaning service is too slow or nonexistent.
Residents want better. About 100 of them turned out to hear the Campbell Valley House Band, enjoy a soup bean supper, and speak with members of the broadband committee about plans to bring high speed internet to their community.
Resident Darlene Campbell compared her community’s current internet access to being trapped on an island with a bad two-way radio. “If you don’t have a connection with someone on the other end, you’re not going to get the help,” said Campbell, a school teacher who took part in organizing the meeting in her role as chairperson of the Campbell’s Branch Community Center. “That’s pretty much the way this area has been with the internet connection. We can’t reach out to our possibilities because of the current services we have.”
Lack of broadband costs the community jobs, another resident said. Jamelia Lewis, who lives across from the community center, stays close to home to care for her mother. She has a background in accounting.
“I was actually offered a job where I could work from home but couldn’t take it,” she said. “My dad just passed away, but my mom needed help with my dad, and so I couldn’t take the job, because there’s no internet.”
Harry Collins, chair of the Letcher County Broadband Committee, said he got good information from the participants who shared both their frustrations and what could happen in the community with better broadband.
“[I] heard a story here tonight about a fellow that had a house for sale and probably could have had it sold two or three times,” Collins said. But when the potential buyer found out about internet service, the sale fell through. “He told him basically there’s no connectivity here. Deal breaker.”
Collins expressed hope that the committee could help deliver broadband throughout even the smallest communities in the area. Big roads are never going to Linefork, Collins said. But “this group can bring you the information highway, not only up Campbell’s Branch, but to the head of Long Branch, and the head of Turkey Creek, and all those other hollows here in this community, and that’s what we’re here to do.”