Digitally disconnected

How rural students struggle to find internet access, and what one small college is doing about it.

 

Completing homework assignments is tougher for Aaliyah Juanico, 14, than it is for other kids at Farmington High School. That’s because, unlike 90 percent of her peers, Juanico’s family doesn’t have an internet connection at their home.

Juanico can access the internet on her cell phone, but she says it’s a slow connection at her house an hour from town. She also fears using too much cellular data, which can slap her family with a fee. Sometimes, Juanico’s parents drive her to a library or McDonald’s. While that approach usually works, it’s hardly ideal.

Aaliyah Juanico, 14, a freshman at Farmington High School, types on her school-issued laptop at the Farmington Boys and Girls Club, while she waits for her parents to finish work.
Leah Todd

“It’s very stressful at times,” Juanico said. “Because sometimes we don’t have gas in the car. And I have to explain to my teachers why I can’t get the assignment done.”

Roughly one in 10 students at Farmington Municipal Schools lack internet access at home, according to a student survey conducted among 6th through 12th graders there earlier this year. (Teachers say the real figure is likely even higher.) That’s a problem for a school district that requires students to complete online exercises and turn in homework electronically. It’s also an issue that disproportionately affects students whose families can’t afford the internet — a substantial concern in Farmington, where half the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. And the lack of connectivity isn’t just a problem for schools. Nationally, home broadband in rural areas lags behind urban and suburban centers, a discouraging reality that can stifle economic development and employment.

Fortunately for Juanico and other Farmington residents, however, one potential fix to the connectivity crisis is happening just across town.

The budding solution comes courtesy of Christopher Schipper, director of the San Juan College library in Farmington. For years, Schipper watched students migrate from their spots in the college library to hallways and stairwells just outside once the library closed — a desperate attempt to squeeze a little more work out of the free campus internet before returning home for the night.

A simple idea occurred to him: why can’t these students take a little piece of the internet home with them each night?

Schipper had read about the New York City Library’s wireless hotspot program, which, starting in 2014, used a $1 million donation from Google and several grants to offer 10,000 free wireless hotspots for families for an entire school year. The devices, hardly larger than a pack of playing cards, are often available for free with a contract from major cellular companies, and can connect to the internet anyplace with cell phone reception.

Last year, inspired by New York’s success, Schipper purchased 10 hotspots, using $5,000 from the college foundation’s endowment fund.

“The need is consistent and it’s strong,” Schipper said. Typically, he said, there’s a waiting list of 10 to 15 people who want to check out one of his hotspots for a week at a time. “It’s not perfect. If it were perfect, we’d be loaning these out for an entire semester, and we’d have 100 of them or more.”

This year, the program’s second, Schipper added five more devices and increased the amount of data each student can use tenfold. He’s received inquiries from a rural librarian in Florida and a library in Iowa that want to try the same approach. 

“It’s woefully inadequate,” Schipper said of his program. “But we do what we can. It’s a social justice issue. I don’t know how else to think about it.”

Students use the Internet on their school-issued laptops at the Farmington Boys and Girls Club, which provides free Internet.
Leah Todd

Although Schipper’s program is helping Farmington’s college students, bigger connectivity solutions are a necessity for America’s small towns. Internet connections are often slower and more expensive in rural places than in cities, in part because it’s so expensive to run high-speed lines to tiny, remote communities. And costs can vary wildly. According to a 2015 analysis by the state Public School Facilities Authority, the monthly rates schools pay for internet access run from as little as $1.35 per megabit per second to as much as $3,780. Federal and state initiatives have tried to incentivize infrastructure development, especially in rural communities, but towns like Farmington are still a long way off.

Schools nationwide have adapted. A school district in Arizona partnered with local businesses to install Wi-Fi on school buses. Another district in Washington built wireless internet kiosks in public housing.

In Farmington, each student in grades 6 through 12 receives a laptop. But the devices don’t help much if students can’t access the academic sites and research links the school increasingly relies on.

Despite these challenges, and although a growing number of schools elsewhere are experimenting with wireless hotspots, the Farmington school district hasn’t seriously considered sending the devices home with students. That’s partly because even the hotspots are an imperfect solution: they only work in places with adequate cell phone reception, which is not a guarantee in northern New Mexico. Plus, the district isn’t exactly flush with cash these days: due to an ongoing state budget crisis, Farmington Municipal Schools started the year in a $4.2 million deficit, with more cuts pending.

Instead, the district is focused on bringing decent internet to school facilities, said Charles Thacker, the district’s executive director of technology. Thacker is also working on a bigger vision: He wants wireless hotspots installed throughout the city, not just at the schools. That will take money, new infrastructure and a level of cooperation between the town, county and private industry that other cities have managed, but that has eluded Farmington so far. (Farmington ranked last in a survey of American cities that measured high-speed internet use in 2013.)

Until better wireless access comes to Farmington, students will continue to improvise. Charity Roy, a ninth grader whose family doesn’t have broadband, will carefully leave open the website windows she thinks she will need before she leaves school each day. Teachers will continue to give Zechariah Ancira Buckway, a seventh grader, more time on assignments because they know his family doesn’t have internet access at home.

And Aaliyah Juanico will hop from McDonald’s to the library when she can. She’ll continue spending afternoons at the Farmington Boys and Girls Club, where she waits until her parents get off work, and where the internet is plentiful — and free.

This story is part of the "Small towns, big change" project through the Solutions Journalism Network.

This story is part of the "Small towns, big change" project through the Solutions Journalism Network.

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