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Christina Sexton pays for the highest internet speeds that Spectrum offers in her Belton, Missouri, neighborhood. The connection is good when the internet works but has gotten worse throughout the pandemic. And with all three of her kids doing remote learning and her working from home, it hasn’t been fast enough to support the whole family being online.
Their internet signal sometimes drops as often as three to four times a day, turning remote work and school into a juggling act.
“I try to schedule work meetings around when…more than one of them has to be online at the same time,” Sexton, 46, said. “You can’t always do that. So sometimes I’m even doing work meetings from my phone, because our internet’s not up to snuff.”
The Sexton family’s constant struggles with the internet reflects one of the major divides highlighted by the pandemic: between those with strong internet and those without. In a state where 780,000 people don’t have an internet connection that meets the Federal Communication Commission’s definition of broadband and 352,000 don’t have broadband at all, Missouri officials tapped into its coronavirus relief funds to expand broadband access amid the pandemic.
Broadband access is not the only obstacle for Missouri households — high costs of internet can make it more difficult for families to get online. According to Broadband Now, a website collecting data on broadband coverage in the U.S., about 55% of Missouri residents have access to an internet plan at or below $60 a month.
Tim Arbeiter, director of broadband development with the state Department of Economic Development, said broadband access has been a priority of Gov. Mike Parson and his administration, but the pandemic brought the issues of digital infrastructure to the forefront.
“Those who are just needing to engage in the virtual setting, when you don’t have that internet connectivity, and in some cases don’t have the devices, it’s a real challenge,” Arbeiter said.
The state used $50 million of its coronavirus relief funds to launch new initiatives dedicated to expanding broadband and responding to the pandemic. The funding, announced last July, was divided among an emergency broadband investment program, primary and higher education institutions, telehealth programs, and Missouri libraries.
Most of the funding went to the Emergency Broadband Investment Program and to local school districts and institutions of higher education. Smaller awards went to Missouri libraries, including $78,270 to the Kansas City Public Library to distribute devices with hotspot capability.
Arbeiter said the Missouri Telehealth Network, housed within the University of Missouri, provided hotspot devices to 38 clinics throughout the state, including eight clinics in Kansas City.
Sexton’s three kids, 16-year-old twins in high school and a 12-year-old, are normally easy learners who have always succeeded in school.
But moving to online learning has been especially difficult with an internet prone to disconnection, causing their grades to suffer. Sexton, who was working as a teacher last spring when the pandemic hit, saw firsthand how a lack of internet made it difficult for some students to keep up.
“It was so tough for the kids who did not have internet in the spring to get schoolwork done,” she said. “They lost out on a quarter of their school year because they couldn’t do what the rest of us were doing.”
An estimated 23% of Missouri students lack sufficient internet access, according to a May 2020 survey conducted by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Recognizing the challenges facing students, $10 million of coronavirus relief funds as part of the Rapid Broadband Deployment Initiative were allocated to local school districts and another $10 million were allocated to institutions of higher education to provide devices to students, upgrade their broadband network and help schools expand their Wi-Fi connection past their buildings.
To determine funding, Chris Neale, assistant commissioner at the Office of Quality Schools within the Division of Learning Services at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said education officials ranked all 555 Missouri school districts and charter schools based on poverty levels and digital infrastructure adoption. Schools with higher rates of poverty and low infrastructure adoption — and therefore less ability to provide devices to students — received $300 per child who received free or reduced lunch, Neale said.
With the funding, schools were able to purchase more than 65,000 Chromebooks, Neale said. While the issue of digital access among students remains, being able to provide that many devices to students who didn’t previously have them was an accomplishment.
“Whether it’s allowing a student to connect to their teacher, whether it’s allowing a student to take a virtual class through (Missouri Course Access and Virtual School Program), whether it’s allowing a student to do research on the internet where they haven’t been able to, all those things are possible for students that wasn’t possible before,” Neale said.
Sexton’s kids received devices from the Belton School District: Macbooks for the twins and an iPad for the sixth-grader. But school still hasn’t been easy for Sexton’s kids, like when the internet cuts out in the middle of a school project.
“They are absolutely falling behind,” she said. “And they’re gonna pay a price for it.”
State by state comparison
Missouri joins several other states in using a portion of coronavirus relief funds, which was authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act last year, to improve broadband infrastructure and address the digital divide.
Kansas, for instance, allocated $60 million of its coronavirus relief funds to two grant programs, with one focused on helping service providers expand broadband in underserved or unserved areas and another on short-term solutions like providing devices to households or assisting families with internet costs.
In Nebraska, a state with a lower percentage of residents with access to broadband than in Missouri, officials established the Remote Access Rural Broadband Grant program, which awarded more than $29.5 million last October to address areas with subpar internet or no internet at all.
To the north of the state, Iowa allocated $50 million of its coronavirus relief funds to service providers to expand broadband in unserved or underserved areas of the state or offer internet subscription discounts to households. Arkansas also directed a portion of its coronavirus funds toward improving broadband access in rural areas of the state.
Other states also directed their COVID-19 funds to libraries. In Idaho, the Commission for Libraries used $2 million to buy equipment for libraries in small communities of fewer than 10,000 to provide 24/7 public Wi-Fi access. Arizona also provided its state libraries with funding to purchase devices, provide tech support and expand digital network access.
‘There’s a need in every community’
In Missouri, 27 infrastructure projects received funding from the grant program, for a total of about $3.9 million. To qualify for the grant, providers had to identify households that were impacted by the pandemic, like if a student or a person with health conditions that put them at risk for COVID-19 lives at a home. Infrastructure solutions varied from fixed wireless internet to fiber to the premises, which builds out fiber-optic lines from a service provider to a place of residence.
Missouri-based service provider Socket was one of 12 providers to receive funding. In total, Socket received over $984,000 for 10 different broadband projects that brought fiber-to-the-premises internet to nearly 600 households in central Missouri. Adam Voight, marketing and consumer sales manager at Socket, said all projects met the completion deadline of Dec. 30.
As cost is often a primary reason why service providers don’t build digital infrastructure in rural communities, the emergency broadband grants helped the company extend service to areas that were more cost prohibitive, Voight said.
“In rural areas, with homes that are spread out, it’s difficult to bring fiber-optic network to those locations,” he said.
As leadership chair of the University of Missouri Broadband Initiative, Marcus McCarty has been researching and working on solutions to expand broadband across the state. He said it’s critical if rural America is going to survive.
“It’s not so much broadband per se, but what broadband can do,” McCarty said. “…You can’t operate a society efficiently without that access.”
But access to broadband is not so much an exclusively rural problem as it is a universal one — it’s just a matter of who gets left out, McCarty said.
“There’s a need in every community in every county of this state,” he said. “You’ll find areas where a cluster of homes isn’t covered or a street isn’t covered. Or in urban areas there’s access, but it’s not affordable, so members of the community don’t have it.”
Affordability is a problem for Sexton — between the phone and internet bills, she spends almost $300 a month to make sure she and her kids can continue working and learning from home. As a single mom, Sexton has struggled to keep up with those bills during the pandemic.
“We definitely scraped by a little while,” she said, “but I knew we had to keep our internet up.”
This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.