By and large, students right now need access to the internet to complete assignments. In the Bend-La Pine and Redmond school districts, 6.9% of the population doesn't have access to broadband internet, according to The Rural Opportunity Map. A short drive away, in the rural areas of Madras and Prineville, more than 70% of families live without a hardwired connection.
For this week’s “Bend Don’t Break” podcast, compiled as part of this story, the Source talked with Derek Glasser, assistant manager of Yellowknife Wireless, a company providing internet service to local businesses and rural households through radio frequency waves. We also heard from tech experts and administrators at local school districts to learn more about what they are doing to get students the connection they need.
Glasser said Yellowknife is busier than he’s ever experienced in his nine years of working for the company, due to students and parents working from home. He explained Yellowknife is well suited for rural internet delivery because it uses radio waves that are then captured by an antenna of the roof of a house or business. Other local internet service providers use cable lines, the same ones that transmit cable TV, to create high-speed internet connections. At the very least, broadband connections are faster than dial-up internet that once went through phone lines. But, for people in nearby rural areas, the actual cables simply don’t reach their homes. Yellowknife can to installations on some rural homes depending on their locations.
Because broadband service is a for-profit endeavor, and cable infrastructure is expensive, local companies haven't built lines to many rural homes in Central Oregon. Companies would need to extend cable wires anywhere from a few yards to a few miles to get some rural homes connected.
People could opt for a satellite internet connection, transmitted from a satellite orbiting the earth, but it's generally not as fast or reliable as broadband, and almost always more expensive. Another workaround is using a cell phone as an internet hotspot, but data plans on mobile phones are usually limited, so going that route could cost a lot of money.
Check out the rest of our interview with Glasser by listening to the “Bend Don’t Break” podcast:
Getting Central Oregon students connected
Ben Hanson is the director of information technology at Bend-La Pine Schools. He told the Source the district ordered 1,000 internet hotspots that connect wirelessly through T-Mobile cell phone technology within the first week of school closures in March. BLPS received its first batch of 500 on April 20 and delivered 200 immediately to local families.
“We want to make sure we have equality with connectivity at home, but there isn’t really a one-size-fits-all solution for that,” he said.
Some families took advantage of Bend Broadband’s free access program which provided free internet for families who could provide some documentation of need. Other families found internet options early on with the help of the Family Access Network, through a program that provides a lower-cost service, also through Bend Broadband.
The T-Mobile hotspots required no up-front costs to the district, but T-Mobile charges $20 per connection per month for unlimited data. Still, Hanson said because cell networks are sometimes unreliable, the best option for some students may be a service hardwired into the home. For others who lead a mobile lifestyle, it's ideal, he said.
Hanson said the district was ahead of the curve prior to the crisis, so teachers and students were able to focus more on the content of their assignments and lectures instead of the technological aspect. BLPS runs 2,000 individual meetings a day between teachers, students and staff using the WebX virtual instruction platform.
Redmond School District
The Redmond School District also ordered 500 T-Mobile hotspots when the pandemic began, and like Bend, experienced a delay in delivery as schools all over the U.S. put in orders to help students without access. Kelly Jenkins, the communications coordinator for RSD, said that it was both socio-economic factors and a rural location that contributed to the need for assistance with connectivity. The school also distributed a Chromebook to every student.
“When we did the Chromebook distribution, we had so many families that were so thankful,” Jenkins said. “Even families that are not economically challenged may have parents working from home using the family computer, so it makes sense they would need another device at home.”
Crook County School District
According to The Rural Opportunity Map, 71% of the population in Crook County doesn't have access to broadband internet. The school district’s original work-around was to station five district buses with Wi-Fi that students could use as hotspots, but that wasn’t enough. Facebook donated $30,000 for 19 additional buses, for a current total of 24 dispersed throughout the district. CCSD also received a series of grants over the years (including $50,000 recently from Facebook) to supply Chromebooks to every student.
Two Prineville schools, Barnes Butte and Crooked River Elementary, earned The Imagine Nation Beacon School award along with only four other schools in Oregon this week. The for-profit education platform Imagine Learning gave the awards to schools with high levels of engagement on their software. Elementary students in Prineville use Imagine Language & Literacy and Imagine Math: These are interactive programs that present a virtual classroom where students can engage in the material through iPads or Chromebooks.
What about government help?
In 1935, as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal helping move the country out of the Great Depression, the government passed the Rural Electrification Act. It provided federal loans to companies to install electrical infrastructure to isolated areas in rural America. In 1949, the loans were extended to telephone companies.
Today, most communications technology, including internet access, is provided by a few monopolies without much competition between each other. Because of this, there is little motivation to invest in rural projects that might not yield dividends anytime soon. Lack of competition also discourages infrastructure upgrades like fiber-optic connections. Fiber optics provide lightning-fast speeds and are commonplace in Europe and Asia. Americans also pay some of the highest prices for broadband in the developed world, according to a 2018 report by the Federal Communications Commission.
Today, the closest thing to FDR’s electricity expansion program for the internet is the USDA’s ReConnect Program, which began in 2018. Glasser told the Source these types of programs, while well intentioned, involve too much paperwork to make them a viable option for some companies.
“That process we’ve tried to dive into headfirst first ourselves and found that there’s so much red tape and they want you to account for every nickel to a level that you’d have to hire personnel just to manage that aspect of your business,” Glasser said.