On paper, Paul Mach and his family are connected to the information superhighway that is increasingly essential to modern life. In real life, they are often in the ditch, thumbs out.
As Waco Independent School District technology coordinator, Mach spends his days expanding high-tech opportunities for Waco students, such as online college courses.
But back home on his family’s small ranch six miles west of Crawford, his own kids, 13 and 16, cannot get enough bandwidth to take a class by video.
A “hotspot” device connected to the family’s AT&T mobile account allows enough capacity to stream some video — but not reliably. Sometimes, he cannot even get enough juice to send a text or make a cellphone call.
“It’s frustrating to know what resources are out there, but because of where we live we are limiting what resources we can offer to our kids,” Mach said. “My daughter’s about to start taking college classes, and we’re going to have to really look into how we can make that successful. We may have to go to another location, a place that would provide Wi-Fi. Out here, that’s part of the trick. We don’t have McDonald’s or Starbucks that have free Wi-Fi.”
The rural-urban digital divide has been discussed for a quarter-century, but it remains difficult to define and expensive to bridge. The latest effort to address the issue kicked off at the Hewitt Public Library on March 22, with the first of several “town hall” meetings on expanding rural broadband.
State Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, participated in the first meeting, which was organized by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, AARP and Glasshouse Policy, a think tank.
“The ultimate goal is to go out and collect information and experiences, research the issue and present policy recommendations to lawmakers in the next session,” said John Lawler, senior policy fellow for Glasshouse.
Lawler said official statistics and maps may understate the gap rural Texans including the Machs face because of how the data is reported. Still, the available data suggests rural areas lag significantly behind urban areas in connectivity:
- A Federal Communications Commission report in February estimated that only 89.7 percent of rural Americans had access to either mobile or fixed-line broadband, compared to 98 percent of customers nationwide. Broadband is defined by the FCC as 25 megabits per second downloading, 3 Mbps uploading
- Some 30,000 people in McLennan County lack access to wired internet service with 25 Mbps download speeds, according to FCC and Broadband Now statistics compiled by Glasshouse
- More than 35 percent of customers in McLennan County lack access to more than one internet provider, according to Glasshouse.
The FCC uses a “universal service fee” on phone bills to help extend telecommunications infrastructure to areas that its maps show are underserved. But rural broadband advocates say those maps can give an overly rosy picture of coverage. For example, McLennan County is completely left off the map of underserved areas that will be subject to a $2 billion “reverse auction” for telecommunications providers this summer.
Those maps are based on self-reported data from service providers, which only have to show that they serve at least one customer in a given Census block, said Chris Pedersen, a vice president with the nonprofit Connected Nation, which has done broadband mapping for the U.S. government.
“It’s particularly dramatic in areas where you’ve got a large Census block and a few people,” Pedersen said. “We know that some Census blocks are bigger than the state of Rhode Island.”
Pedersen’s group last mapped Texas in 2014, independently verifying map data using federal stimulus funds which have since run out. But even that map showed that all of McLennan County was covered by one or more services at 10 mpbs download speeds. That included cable and fiber broadband in the major towns, with mobile or fixed-wireless service in more rural areas, including Mach’s rural neighborhood.
Pam Bohne, Mach’s mother-in-law, testified at the town hall meeting March 22 that the coverage she gets, if she gets it at all, is far from high-speed.
Bohne said she pays $62 a month for satellite service, but she has found it to be unreliable at times. She uses her smartphone for getting on the internet, but she often has to go upstairs to even get a signal.
When she applied for a job online, she found herself having to repeatedly fill out the form because she kept losing signal.
She said she would like to have her grandchildren over to watch Netflix, but that is not in the cards.
“Oh, Lord no, it would buffer forever,” Bohne said. “You might get a few minutes. Then it goes downhill. You just don’t venture into that because it’s too aggravating.”
The FCC definition of broadband has escalated rapidly over the last decade, reflecting the increasing demand for data, especially in the form of videos.
In 2010, the standard was less than 1 Mbps. Over the next few years the standard increased to 4, then 10, then 25.
The Netflix website recommends at least 1.5 Mbps for streaming movies, or 5 for high-definition quality, but broadband advocates note that many households may use more than one internet-connected device at once.
Steve Helms, owner of Central Link Broadband, a fixed wireless service east of Waco, said he believes the 25 Mbps standard is overkill for most users. His company offers eastern McLennan County customers 10 Mbps download speed through antennas for almost $60 per month.
“You’d be surprised how little bandwidth you actually need,” Helms said. “I can’t use 10 Mbps at my desk. I can run 300 at my desk, but it’s not any different than 10 Mbps service.”
Sharon Strover, a University of Texas at Austin communications professor who participated in the Hewitt town hall, said she does not see an end to the need for faster speeds. Strover has traveled the country studying internet connectivity, and she said rural residents are falling behind the curve.
“We’re at the point that we’ve stepped over the line,” she said. “Low bandwidth takes you out of too much. I think 10 years ago people would have laughed at 25 as a standard. That’s what makes this whole endeavor a bit of a roll of the dice. How much service do you need? Nobody can ever say.”
Texas Farm Bureau spokesman Gene Hall compared the need for rural internet access to the need for rural electrification in the 1930s, which took government intervention.
“This is like the third chapter of an old story here,” Hall said. “It’s getting more and more important. This generation of millennial farmers and those who come after them are more into computers, and even older farmers are learning what an essential tool digital technology is.”
Neil Walter, a row crop farmer and rancher near Oglesby, said internet access is indispensable for running a modern farm. He uses his computer to search equipment prices, lock in commodity prices and keep an eye on weather.
His local phone company, CenturyLink, offers copper-wire DSL lines with 1.5 Mbps download speeds, which is fast enough for most of his computer needs but not ideal for Netflix.
“It is too slow,” Walter said. “I would prefer faster but I can get by.”
Pedersen, the Connected Nation official, said a variety of technologies could bridge the digital divide for rural Americans, but it will take political will.
“I’m glad there’s more attention to it, but I don’t think anything is going to happen until there’s a groundswell,” he said. “It’s more and more obvious that there’s insufficient connectivity in certain pockets. The more we can shine a light on it, the more opportunity there will be for something to happen.”