Lower Peach Tree, Alabama – Toward the end of a potholed country road, in the computer lab of a one-story school, the Internet one morning choked out a final quiz question about melting icebergs and then sputtered to a halt. The image of a spinning wheel popped onto Tatiana Flowers’s computer screen. Then Cedric Garner Jr.’s. Within 30 seconds, the problem had spread across the room, and 11 eighth-graders were again practicing the one skill their computer class seemed actually good for: patience.
“Miss Washington, my Learning.com buffering,” Flowers, 14, said.
“Mine buffering, too,” Garner, 13, said.
Another student tried to refresh his screen. “There is no Internet connection,” his Web browser said, and just above the type, there was an image of a dinosaur.
Monroe Intermediate, a K-8 school in rural Alabama, is a tech dinosaur only because it has little choice, sitting in an impoverished community of churches and trailer homes that telecom companies have little financial incentive to wire. Over the past decade and a half, corporations including AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have laid cabling that is capable of transmitting high-speed Internet across much of urban and suburban America.
But educators say there is a problem: The companies have essentially finished building in every area where they believe they can profit. And several thousands of America’s schools sit outside these zones, according to EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit organization that measures Internet access in classrooms.
The experience of students at Monroe Intermediate shows how the financial decisions of telecom companies have put rural students at a disadvantage, leaving some without basic digital abilities that many in America take for granted. Federal regulators are working toward a fix for these out-of-reach of schools, but it’s unclear to what extent these efforts will solve the problem.
The schools with sub-par Internet are scattered around the country, spanning from the far-flung communities of Alaska to the desert towns of New Mexico. The danger is that students who attend these schools will struggle for years with the critical tasks that now require online fluency: applying to colleges, researching papers, looking for jobs.
“This is essentially the definition of the digital divide in education,” said Evan Marwell, the EducationSuperHighway founder and chief executive. “Students on the wrong side don’t have the same opportunity to compete.”
Marwell added that “the providers are kind of done building to all the areas they can rationalize on their own. So we need to figure out how to get it to those last places.”
While having only one provider in a region might mean higher cable or Internet bills in cities, in rural areas it can have profound consequences. For Internet access, Monroe depends on a nearly two-decade-old T1 line that, by the time it reaches dozens of individual computers, delivers speeds comparable to dial-up service. The school district’s administrators have tried for nearly two years to persuade AT&T to upgrade its service in the area, to no avail.
“I thought, in my little naive head, if I could just talk to them, explain to them that we have these 60-odd children in the middle of nowhere, they would understand,” said Devlynne Barnes, the technology director for Monroe County Schools.
Instead, Monroe has daily computer classes that start and stall; students sometimes need 30 minutes just to log in. It has 29 iPads, purchased with federal funding, that often go unused because of the wretched WiFi. It has students who talk about the Internet not as a reliable tool, but as a temperamental one. It works better in the mornings, they say. It works better on this side of the room. It works better when the sun is out.
Grasping for a wider reach
Lower Peach Tree is one of the hardest-to-reach places in Alabama, at the far western edge of a county most famous for being the home of the late author Harper Lee. In much of the county, including at six other schools, Frontier Communications provides good broadband Internet. But Lower Peach Tree sits on the other side of the Alabama River, AT&T’s territory, and is reachable from Monroeville — the county seat — only by intermittent ferry service or a looping, one-hour drive. Many who live in Lower Peach Tree work as loggers or truck drivers. The town of fewer than 1,000 residents has no restaurants or gas stations.
Educators say that rural areas, with limited curriculums and resources, in particular could benefit from digital advances that allow students to reach far beyond their towns. Spanish classes could Skype with students in Mexico City. Advanced students could take high school classes remotely. The problem is that such small towns also provide a limited pool of customers for any company thinking about making an investment.
Beginning in 2014, Barnes said she grew frustrated enough with AT&T’s reluctance to wire Monroe Intermediate that she tried to contact a senior decision-maker. She was passed around from one contact to another, she said, and left “15 to 20” voice mails with four or five people. She also, for months, exchanged e-mails in which AT&T officials sound encouraging but don’t follow up.
Starting July 1, the Federal Communications Commission will provide a new option for schools that feel stuck: Those schools can hire their own outside companies to build their fiber connections, partially using federal funding, if the local telecom company won’t. The goal is to provide more leverage to schools than before.
But there are doubts from local educators that the proposal will actually be the cure they need. Monroe administrators, after talking recently with other telecom companies, estimate that it will cost $1 million to run fiber to Monroe Intermediate. U.S. taxpayers will pay for 80 percent, but that leaves the district on the hook for $200,000 — something it still can’t afford. Barnes, the technology coordinator, said the district might solicit donations.
The speed test finished: The download speed was 0.76 megabits per second, less than one-fiftieth of what Verizon or Comcast offers residential customers in the District.
Read Article (Chico Harlan | washingtonpost.com | 04/22/2016)
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