Access for all: digital divide leaves out families during virtual learning

Government officials seek long-term solutions for broadband expansion
Published: Aug. 3, 2020 at 9:59 PM CDT
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ELLENBORO, Wis. (WMTV) - Ever since Wisconsin shutdown mid-March, the demand for digital has increased.

Local schools and students are being tested as they prepare to return to class, and until a plan is in place, many families continue to struggle – especially when it comes to online learning.

Some families either have trouble connecting or they can’t afford it.

Digital Divide

“We knew when we bought the place that internet might be a challenge,” Ellenboro resident and Platteville Librarian Jessie Lee-Jones said. “I would describe our internet connections as ‘unstable and slow.’”

Jones’s husband, Garrett Jones, is a social studies teacher at Platteville High School, and has experienced many issues with their inconsistent internet.

“We always had high-speed internet at work,” Garrett Jones said. “So, before the stay at home order it was a mild inconvenience we had to plan around, and now, we just have to deal with it.”

The Joneses are a family of four. They’re used to struggling with an inconsistent internet connection, but the shift of the pandemic sent them scrambling in spring.

“We tried satellite, we tried a hot spot, internet, and then the school was able to provide us with a hot spot from a different cellular service,” Garrett Jones said. “So, at one point we actually had three different versions of internet to try to make that connection.”

And sometimes, even that wasn’t enough.

“I would drop out of meetings,” Garrett Jones said. “Meetings have been the biggest problem.”

The Jones family’s lack of internet has impacted not only the way they work, but how their six-year-old daughter, Phoebe, finished out her year in kindergarten.

“It was confusing for mommy and daddy and complicated for me too, because I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t just do it,” Phoebe Jones said. “My class couldn’t hear me, and it kept pausing so I couldn’t hear them.”

Jessie said her daughter looked at this opportunity with great enthusiasm at first.

“Then as she learned that she wasn’t connecting the same way her other classmates were, you could slowly watch her losing interest,” Jessie Lee-Jones said. “By the time we figured out what could possibly work, she was done.”

Around that time, the Jones parents started driving their daughter up a hill, about a half a mile from their house with the WIFI hot spot.

Phoebe Jones virtually learns out of the hatchback of vehicle
Phoebe Jones virtually learns out of the hatchback of vehicle(wmtv Jessie Lee-Jones)

“I have a beanbag chair in my room and so daddy would put a table and my bean bag chair in,” Phoebe Jones said.

The Joneses would open their hatchback and set up a classroom in the back of the van perched at the top of the hill.

“[We’d] string some lights up in the back and make it a little more festive for her, but at least she was getting that connection with her teacher and classmates.”

The Jones family said this is where the issues transitions from one of internet capabilities, into one of infrastructure. That hilltop is the closest place they receive a consistent and strong enough signal.

A Temporary Fix

This warrants the question: What is being done to fix this? The Joneses can’t be the only family out there experiencing this issue.

Employees with the Department of Instruction (DPI) said they’ve already been working on it.

“So the data that we gathered last fall, we figured that there were about 15 percent of households across the state that didn’t have internet access from home,” Kurt Kiefer, Assistant State Supt. for the Division of Libraries and Technology said.

Kiefer said during the spring and into the summer, most school districts purchased mobile hot spots and data service plans to close that digital divide for students.

“We think they managed to get that figure down to about five percent, but in Wisconsin, five percent is still about 45,000 kids,” Kiefer said.

To help those without internet during the pandemic, the Public Service Commission (PSC) also stepped in and created a state-wide map of public WIFI access points at libraries, schools or city buildings for free.

“An individual would be able to drive up to and access the WIFI from the parking lot,” Jaron McCallum, State Broadband Director of the PCS said.

McCallum said this option gives those having issues with internet access and affordability issues the outlet they need to connect.

“Driving to a local library in order to upload your homework is definitely not a perfect situation but it is an avenue for folks to continue to keep up,” McCallum said.

As educators and officials continue to develop solutions, families like the Joneses are looking at how to make things work until the problem is solved.

“The access gap getting larger, is a bigger concern that I have other than the experience of my family,” Garrett Jones said.

Garrett and Jessie Lee-Jones said they have tried to advocate for more infrastructure with their rural neighbors to lawmakers, but they know broadband infrastructure will take years until it reaches certain parts of the state.

"We have had to invest in that and we're fortunate to be two professionals working in this rural area, that can afford to experiment, but I'm sure that many of our neighbors are not in that same situation," Jessie Lee-Jones said.

Long Term Solutions

In March, the Public Service Commission gave out $24 million in grants for rural broadband expansion in Wisconsin. Internet providers can use that money to continue to spread out across the state.

The PSC is offering grants for 2021 and will begin accepting applications in September.

Charter communications also made a recent announcement that the company is expanding to Orfordville and Footville in Rock County. According to a press release, they expect to reach about 860 more rural homes.

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