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The first Daily Yonder/National Rural Assembly Livestream Conversation on rural broadband set the stage for this week’s conversation focusing on solutions.
Last week’s livestream conversation on rural broadband in the time of Covid-19 included perspective from a diverse set of rural leaders who are fighting to improve broadband access in their communities:
- A school district in Central Texas working hard to bring broadband internet access to its rural students sees those efforts become ever more essential.
- A hospital in a western Washington tribal community known for its resilience to tsunamis finds ways to take that resilience even further.
- A community nonprofit serving small-business owners and entrepreneurs in the Mississippi Delta relies on mobile hotspots to stay connected even as its main street lays silent.
- And local groups serving rural youth on the margins strive to provide guidance and support where traditional institutions and policy responses often don’t reach.
The conversation was organized and led by the Rural Assembly, and was moderated by Edyael Casaperalta, an attorney who serves underrepresented communities in telecommunications law matters (Editor’s Note: the Rural Assembly is a program of the nonprofit Center for Rural Strategies, publisher of the Daily Yonder).
In what was the first half of a two-part conversation, panelists talked about their challenges related to broadband connectivity, and how it’s shaped their responses to the coronavirus pandemic so far. As Americans are encouraged to stay home and satisfy ever more of their daily needs online, the panelists’ stories offered a sobering look at the people and places at risk of being left behind.
Yet the conversation also highlighted instances of perseverance and creativity and offered ideas for the future. That will be the focus of part two of the conversation, taking place Wednesday, April 22 at 4 p.m. Eastern Time. Panelists will discuss what’s being done to improve access for rural and native communities during this urgent moment, looking at the response from government actors like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and community-led efforts as well. Once again, viewers can sign up and see all the details on the Rural Assembly website. The stream will be hosted live on the Daily Yonder’s YouTube channel.
Those who missed the first livestream can watch it in the embedded video above, and a full transcript of the conversation is available on the Rural Assembly website. We’ve pulled out some excerpts from that transcript and highlighted them below.
On Their Broadband Challenges
Mark Estrada (Superintendent, Lockhart Independent School District, Caldwell County in Central Texas): My school district is well over 300 square miles, so we have a lot of area to cover. … About 40 percent of the county outside of Lockhart is a dead zone, so there’s currently not any service providers there. So a lot of school districts, and I’ve talked to a lot of superintendents especially recently, don’t understand that access doesn’t exist for some people. And when I talked to them about some of the issues that we have in connecting our kids and our families, they throw out ideas like, “Well, just give them a hotspot.” Well, they don’t understand that a hotspot doesn’t work when you have nothing to connect to for that hotspot. So we’ve educated a lot of our surrounding areas certainly that are more urban.
Dr. Libby Cope (Health Director, Sophie Trettevick Indian Health Center in Neah Bay, Washington): Of course, this predates Covid-9. We’ve tried quite a bit to have telehealth … initially it was telepsychiatry and we worked with [the] University of Washington to have one of their psychiatrists see our patients here, and it didn’t work because of internet connectivity issues. So this is an issue that comes up pretty regularly.
… We currently have a wellness center that was built in 2014 … that’s where all of our behavioral health, including our recovery services, our community health, our physical therapy, massage, acupuncture, all of those services function out of that building. And at this time and, and since that building has been there in 2014, they do not have adequate internet. … Sometimes, it takes them about an hour to power on to get onto the server in the morning. And that can lead to pretty big delays in even getting the day started. And some days, the internet just doesn’t work at all there. So, we built that building hoping that we could someday bring the rest of our healthcare services up to that area. And that’s where we’re completely stuck because we can’t move any of our facilities up there until we’ve got that fiber internet structure. So looking at the facilities that we have right now, we don’t have really good cell phone coverage in the wellness center or where the medical clinic is … so, we can’t really use hotspots. Some days, the internet doesn’t work at our clinic either.
Tim Lampkin (CEO, Higher Purpose Co. in Clarksdale, Mississippi): Because we work with farmers, many of them are kind of fourth- or fifth-generation farmers and don’t necessarily have the capital to make the investments to get new technology that could potentially run off of internet access. But even if they did, the speed would be completely slow to ensure that they’re actually getting the production and the return on investment for the equipment that they can purchase. …We’re seeing a lot of our entrepreneurs try to shift to online or creating other mobile platforms to sell their products or services. But again, with limited technology, there is a delay. They’re running into glitches to provide services to their customers. And because we work in urban and rural Mississippi, you’re definitely seeing more of the urban entrepreneurs in the Jackson, Mississippi metro area being a little bit more productive in this time because of the broadband infrastructure that’s in place compared to what’s in place here in the rural Mississippi Delta.
Kim Phinney (Youth Practitioner from Vermont, Senior Fellow, Center for Rural Strategies): One of our projects has been working with a range of local practitioners in [rural] communities that are leading education and workforce training programs, models such as YouthBuild, ConservationCorps, AmeriCorps, all designed to provide education training services. These programs … they received no guidance. Unlike … local schools do, or other systems received guidance from their local districts, from their state offices, these programs … for the most part, they receive very little guidance and they were expected to just resume programming with young people virtually, so distance learning, as well as to move forward with recruitment virtually. And much of this did not mesh with the realities. … In their offices, where the young people would normally come to the program, [these programs] generally speaking, have coverage, they have broadband they’re able to provide … but the moment you step outside, so their larger service area across the county or counties, you’re in very small communities, unincorporated communities … and just the ability to have coverage is mixed. … Many of the young people don’t have cell service either, unless they’re right at the office. One program reported that only one of the staff members, all the staff were supposed to be working from home, and only one of the staff members in that program has actual cell reception at their house. So, this is obviously an immediate barrier just with this assumption of providing distance learning and programming for young people. The bigger issue is access in hardware. And so, even if coverage was available, financially, the young people were not in a position to be able … they cannot afford to buy internet access. They don’t have the resources … and their families cannot afford to access [it].
On Responding to Covid-19 and Improving Access
Mark Estrada: The response to Covid-19 has really pushed us to have some urgency around connectivity. We’ve been looking at, for a little over two years, how we can connect our students who live out in the rural areas of Caldwell County. And last week [we] actually purchased a tower so that we could connect everyone. One hundred percent of our county will have high speed internet connections using our school district bandwidth and internet structure. And so we’re very excited about the work that we’re doing in the district, but it did take a lot of work in finding someone, the right vendor who would partner with us in this work. Because unfortunately, a lot of folks weren’t as interested in serving a rural community because of probably financial reasons, obviously. But we did find a partner who we’re going to partner with to build seven towers across the county to cover our entire county, and Caldwell County hasn’t been done before. So we’re very excited about that moving forward and what that does for our kids and our families.
… The vendors actually will own the towers and have the ability to lease to other people, if they choose. But we’re guaranteed to have it for at least ten years, and then we’ll go on five year cycles after that … Essentially, we were able to build seven towers at a cost that it would have cost for us to build one tower, about half a million dollars, and we’re locked in for ten years in doing that. We also have some structures or things built into those contracts that allow us to generate some revenue to the school district as well, like referral fees and things like that, where I expect the district will be in a good financial situation … The yearly fee per family or per house that we’ll connect to is a little less than $30 a year. So we’ve priced that out, obviously, that’s a good deal. Again, we’ll be using our high-speed connection that the district owns, and our bandwidth is sufficient for us to connect to every home.
Libby Cope: Very few of our community members have personal computers. Most people who are fluent or using technology are doing it at work. So those would be the tribal employees or our healthcare employees … I think that the kids I know at the school, most of them either do have Chromebooks or they got them as soon as things changed. So I think the kids are doing okay. But as far as our staff goes, most of our staff didn’t have any computers at all. So, suddenly, on March 16, we had to have them all working from home, and they had no computers. To do telehealth, they need to have a computer at home as well … We are tapped into the state’s [Emergecy Operations Center] (EOC) right now, and everybody’s requesting personal protective equipment, PPE, which I know … I can tell from all the calls they’re out of it. We’re going to request as much as we want, and we’re not going to get any. But, a couple of weeks ago, I was like, “Nobody’s requesting computers!” So I just requested 35 laptops, and I just became really vocal about our need for laptops. We got 65 laptops yesterday.
So I will say that people are responding to it, and that’s probably a bonus to being located in western Washington. I think most folks along that I-5 corridor, that’s not something that they’re needing right now and so they have an excess of. So yes, that was something that we desperately needed, and I was really loud about it. Luckily, it’s something that not a lot of people in Tacoma and Seattle need, and so they were able to loan us a whole bunch. But they’re still on loan, and this is a marathon and not a sprint. So we’re still looking for funding to be able to buy all of those laptops. I really think all of our employees … and, honestly, I’d like to see everyone have a computer in their home so that they can use that.
Tim Lampkin: There has been some progress in our state, but it’s very slow progress. There was a bill that was signed back in 2019 to allow cooperatives to start to offer broadband technology. However, that’s moving very slow. And we’re also worried about the inequities … in the existing infrastructure of cooperatives here in Mississippi. With majority of the state being African-American, how does representation show up in those cooperatives from the leadership and actually who’s being served by those cooperatives? So, we’re looking at all the existing issues and now they’re just accelerated because of what’s happening and the disparities that already exist.
… What we’re doing right now, we have a fellowship program that we have been running for the last year. And we’re in conversations right now to provide those fellows that do not have laptops and computers access to those to continue working on their business, and pivoting as [much as] possible. In addition to that, we’re also developing some strategies with some of our partners to provide some direct funds to the businesses … to support any expenses that they’re dealing with right now. A lot of them are also looking to actually change their entire business. So, I think you’re going to see more entrepreneurs going into kind of tech-enabled businesses because so many people are scared to actually reopen locations.
On The Importance of Broadband
Mark Estrada: In the education landscape, but I’m hearing from Tim and from Libby and from Kim, that we share some things in terms of the lack of … hope and social capital by not being connected. Whether you’re an entrepreneur or trying to build a hospital, when these things become barriers, it can lower your level of hope and certainly disconnect you from the people and things that are out there that can help you move beyond your situation.
Libby Cope: We’ve been wanting to do telehealth, I think, for a long time. And again I mentioned trying to do telepsychiatry because that’s a huge need out here. And we were not able to do it for a couple of reasons. The bandwidth made those sessions just not even useful for the patient. They had to come into our office at the wellness center and we would set them up … the connectivity made those sessions so that people didn’t like them and they stopped coming … Right now, if you need a psychiatrist, you’re probably going to Seattle or Tacoma. And that’s a huge chunk of time and it’s a day. And we pay for our patients who are income-eligible for that time or we drive them. So, it’s multiple people’s salaries and multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on vouchers and gas. And if we’re not transporting them, we’re relying on them having a reliable vehicle. And so, there’s probably between 10 and 20, at least, of those kinds of services happening per week. And we would really like to be able to save a lot of people time … before even Covid-19 happened. But really, the amount of time…it’s not even healthy to be in the car for that long. A lot of people would go to get a chiropractor. We don’t have a chiropractor out here. They’d go to Port Angeles to get chiropractic service. And then, by the time they get back, they’re not feeling well again.
Tim Lampkin: Prior to Covid-19, our office is open to the public, so several entrepreneurs will come there to use computers and technology to print, to fax, to sign contracts, get things done for their business. We run into a lot of issues when we’re visiting our black farmers because they live in a more rural [areas], outside in the county. Several times, we’ve tried to reach those farmers and we’re not able to reach them. We’ve had to do wellness check-ins on them just to see if they’re okay because it’s been so hard to get in touch with them. And so, that’s also creating additional barriers in this time coupled with what we’re seeing with Covid-19 … It’s also creating more stress on the entrepreneurs that we work with in terms of getting access to financial services that were available. And because we live in a state that has one of the highest populations of unbanked people, a lot of folks are still trying to figure out how to create a relationship with their banking institution. A lot of our entrepreneurs had to adjust how they even do banking for their business, because the lack of technology, the financial institutions don’t have the technology available to allow them to actually do some of the day-to-day business functions.
Kim Phinney: … young people really want a chance to be connected to their communities. While they are labeled as disconnected, they want that. They want the opportunities for leadership and service, education and reliable employment.