19M rural Americans have little or no internet access. Here’s how they hope to change that

More from the series

Pennsylvania Influencer Project

Rural Pennsylvania faces a shortage of broadband access, and the digital divide affects education, health care, property values and quality of life in our communities. The Pennsylvania Influencer Project, a multi-part series from the Centre Daily Times and its parent company McClatchy, examines the challenges and potential solutions to the problem.

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Researchers have come up with some whiz-bang solutions to bring robust broadband connectivity to millions of rural Americans. One involves high-altitude helium-filled balloons. Another would use “white spaces” between television broadcast channels to deliver high-speed internet.

But such innovations offer little immediate help to people like Wanda Shirk, a retired high school English teacher who sat in front of her computer on a recent day and bemoaned her exasperatingly slow internet connection.

“Simply downloading emails, especially with attachments, takes a while,” Shirk said, adding that she was attempting to send an email to a friend. “I have something right now, a PDF that is 14 pages. It’s been sitting here for five minutes. It says ‘sending,’ ” she added. What she called the “circle of death” — a colorful icon — spun on her screen. While the computer buffers, she suffers.

Experts say technological solutions and innovation could bridge the digital chasm that leaves Shirk and at least 19 million other rural Americans with little or no internet connectivity. Solutions exist. But a shortage of investment capital, and a lack of muscular federal policy, delay faster action, they add.

“The sad reality is that the technologies are there to bring big broadband to everyone in the country. The problem is not technological. And you don’t need 5G or any newfangled tech to solve the problem. The problems are political and the problems are the business model. They are economic,” said Sascha Meinrath, a telecommunications expert at Penn State University.

Indeed, state-of-the-art solutions aren’t necessary to push broadband coverage into rural areas. Proven methods include stringing up fiber optic cable over the significant distances between villages and farmhouses. Satellite service is also an option. But both options are costly, and traditional internet providers balk at the lack of return on any such investments.

So some perhaps unexpected players have stepped in to help rural residents who live in isolated swaths of the country where internet service is spotty, slow or non-existent. In some cases, local governments have tried to set up broadband service. In other areas, the farmers’ cooperatives that helped light up the nation eight decades ago as part of a rural electrification drive are getting into the broadband game.

Those rural electric cooperatives are mostly nonprofit, owned by members who agitate for broadband. Once-reluctant managers heed the outcry. Nearly 100 of the 900 or so rural electric co-ops across the United States offer some form of broadband. Another 200 or so co-ops are studying whether to move in the same direction.

“It’s not easy. We’re electric companies. We’re not telecommunications companies,” said Craig Eccher, chief executive of the Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative headquartered in Mansfield in north-central Pennsylvania.

The surprising role of the rural co-ops in providing high-speed internet mirrors an important chapter in U.S. history, and sheds light on the financial challenges of connecting rural America, where residents say the lack of high-speed internet makes them feel left behind.

“I don’t want to say they feel second class, you know, but you do have that feeling in a rural area because you just don’t have the benefit of the services you can get in suburbia,” Eccher said.

Craig Eccher, CEO of Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative talks on Feb. 13 about how his company is looking to help their members get broadband. Abby Drey

His Tri-County rural electric co-op dates to the 1936 federal act that offered low-cost loans to farmers who established not-for-profit electric utilities, giving them what the act called a “fair chance.” Most of the cooperative utilities still exist today. Indeed, rural electric cooperatives provide power to 56 percent of the U.S. landmass.

“The membership in these rural areas have all said, ‘There’s nobody else. We want you to bring us broadband’,” said Bob Marshall, a former director of the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative and a general manager of the small Plumas-Sierra rural electric cooperative north of Lake Tahoe in California.

“People were like, ‘I got to have this.’ Giving them better broadband, but not great broadband, only heightened their desire,” Marshall added.

After hearing requests, the Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative surveyed its members to see if they wanted the co-op in the broadband business. The response was a resounding yes.

But financing the project was “ugly,” Eccher added, and was only possible when the Tri-County received pledges of more than $33.5 million in federal and state grants. The co-op will begin stringing fiber optic cable later this year. The 16,000 customers who may get lightning-quick internet are jubilant, but they comprise a fraction of the 520,000 rural Pennsylvanians who the state says lack high-speed internet.

The fiber optic cable that Tri-County will string up is only one of many possible solutions.

“There are a lot of companies doing different experiments. You’ve got balloons. There’s been talk of drone services,” said Craig W. Wigginton, vice chairman and U.S. telecommunications leader at Deloitte, a professional services giant. “I’d say within a decade, we’ll stand a better chance of getting a lot of this digital divide closed.”

Jim Sheeley with Vantage Point shows some of the cables and fibers that could be run to help with broadband access on Feb. 13. Abby Drey

Google parent Alphabet Inc. has been testing internet service from high-altitude helium-filled balloons, a project dubbed Loon. The balloons can stay aloft for 200 days, providing broadband coverage over an area 20 to 30 times greater than ground-based systems. Later this year, Loon, together with Telkom Kenya, will offer balloon-powered commercial internet to parts of central Kenya.

For its part, Microsoft says it will bring broadband to three million people in rural areas by 2022. The tech giant offers high-speed internet using spaces between television signals, commonly called white spaces.

Advocates for cellular companies say eventually there will be rural buildout for fifth generation, or 5G, cellular networks that are at least 10 times faster than fourth generation, or 4G, widely in use now. But some experts say rural residents shouldn’t hold their breath.

“5G is not going to happen in rural America, not for a long, long time,” said Christopher Ali, an expert on communication policy at the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia.

The Republican chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, and the FCC’s sole Democratic member, Jessica Rosenworcel, clash over U.S. progress in bridging the Digital Divide, the term used to describe the chasm between those who have access to broadband and those who do not.

Pai told Congress in a report in mid-February that broadband “is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis.” Rosenworcel differed, saying in a tweet, “Millions of households — in rural and urban communities — have no access to high-speed service. That’s a fact.”

Underlying the dispute is how the FCC calculates who has access to high-speed internet. Providers supply the FCC with data, and if it shows that a census block has a single person or institution with broadband, the block is counted as served. Such a definition irks researchers, critics of telecom concentration, and industry titans.

“The FCC broadband map is a mess, a colossal mess,” said Ali, the University of Virginia researcher.

“The existing providers have an incentive to overestimate broadband availability because the FCC is awarding funding, and they don’t want anybody else getting funding and coming into their areas,” said John Windhausen Jr., founder of SHLB, a schools, health and libraries broadband coalition based in Washington.

Wanda Shirk, a retired school teacher in Potter County, talks on Feb. 13 about her poor internet connection in her home. Abby Drey

Microsoft President Brad Smith said at a forum in Washington in December that the FCC’s estimate of 19 million rural Americans without access to broadband is vastly underestimated.

Microsoft’s own services give it insight to actual internet speeds that people use, Smith said.

“We can see download speeds across the country, in every county, and we’ve assembled our own map and made our own estimates. What we have found is that basically half the country is still not using the internet at broadband speed. That’s 162.8 million people. We have a big problem we need to solve,” Smith said.

Proponents of more aggressive federal action to bring broadband to rural areas use language that harkens back to the “fair chance” slogan for rural electrification from the 1930s.

“Right now, this agency’s understanding of where broadband is and is not is flat-out insufficient. We know that if you have broadband, you have a fair shot at success in the digital age,” Rosenworcel, the FCC commissioner, said in an interview.

The FCC has spent $114 billion on rural broadband grants and subsidies, and still at least 19 million people are without adequate service, said Tracy K. Warren, a spokeswoman for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

“We view this as a classic market failure. The need is out there. Consumers are out there. But it just hasn’t been profitable enough to attract the big service providers,” Warren said.

A flashpoint in the turf wars over telecom service occurs 18 feet in the air on the power poles that carry fiber optic cable.

“One of the tricks the incumbents do is when they replace cable they don’t take the old cable down. And then there’s no more room on the pole,” Marshall said. “The big guys tend to point fingers at the electrics and say they own the poles. Then when they get on the poles, they overload them with cables.”

How much more must be spent to resolve the rural Digital Divide is not clear. Just to address it in areas served by rural electric co-ops, which have 42 million residents, would be expensive.

Jim Sheeley with Vantage Point talks shows how he is measuring poles for their database in Potter County on Feb. 13. Abby Drey

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association estimates that it would cost $40 billion to reach 98 percent of the 6.3 million of its members who don’t have broadband currently, and another $40 billion to reach the final 2 percent.

While such costs are huge, not spending the money also inflicts an economic penalty. Those costs range from lower property prices to lost income-generating potential for residents who want to telecommute or operate businesses with an online presence.

The association estimates that its 6.3 million members without robust broadband suffer lost economic gains of $68 billion, failing to receive such benefits as improved healthcare, online learning opportunities, increased housing values and obtaining savings through competitive online retailers.

Even if broadband steadily reaches more rural areas, demands made on providers will change.

“As time keeps rolling on, the average customer is going to need more and more and more bandwidth,” Eccher said.

This series was produced with financial support from the Knight Foundation.

McClatchy reporter Tim Johnson has been covering national security and technology issues since 2016. He was part of a team that shared a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for its investigation of The Panama Papers. Earlier in his career, he spent two decades as a foreign correspondent in Asia and Latin America.