College sophomore Ty Meyer has been spending lots of time in parking lots lately, mostly at McDonald's or his local library. It's often his best option for accessing wifi to turn in homework. One of his NC State University classes requires him to upload video assignments.
Meyer recorded a two minute long video that took him an hour and half to upload, and he’s spending hours every week commuting to wifi hotspots.
“My friends are like, 'Oh, yeah, we got it knocked out of the way within like five to 10 minutes.'” Meyer said, and he thought, “'Man, it would be kind of nice if I could do the same thing.'”
What Meyer is describing is known as the homework gap: the inequality between students who have reliable internet and those who don't. Right now that gap is widening.
College students may not be on campus, but they're still hard at work as they inch closer to the end of spring semester -- and some students are laboring harder than others to overcome a lack of internet access.
“For me, it's like can you push through these last couple of weeks and kind of get there?” Meyer said.
Meyer said he’s confident he can get through the semester, but it's frustrating that what's slowing him down is simply where he lives.
When NC State University asked students to leave campus and continue classes online, Meyer went home to his family's turkey farm in rural Sampson County.
His issue is not that his family can't afford internet service, but rather, that internet companies say they can't afford to install broadband on his road. He doesn't have enough neighbors to help pay the cost.
“They say it's not profitable,” Meyer said. “Even though I live on a five mile, completely paved road that is literally only two turns right off I-40, they say it's still too rural.”
North Carolina’s Internet Dead Zones
Meyer has friends who live just ten miles away who have broadband internet, but his part of Sampson County does not.
The North Carolina Department of Information Technology is tracking internet service areas and wifi hotspots to help residents find points of access during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you look on that service map, Meyer’s family farm in Piney Grove is in a dead zone somewhere between Raleigh and Wilmington.
So his family of six -- including his parents, grandma and younger sisters -- share internet from a hotspot. With three students at home, they burn through their monthly limit quickly.
“We have a solid week where we'll have internet just as good as anyone around,” Meyer said. “But after we hit that cap, it's kind of struggling through to make it.”
Then he's back to the library parking lot. Meyer has called up internet providers looking for anyone willing to install broadband at his home, with no success, and talked to the university. In fact, staff at NC State University reached out to him.
Leslie Boney is the Vice Provost for Outreach and Engagement at NC State University. His team has been calling students in the 20 North Carolina counties with the lowest rates of internet adoption.
“We identified 720 students that we had in those areas and decided to follow up with every one of those students that we could identify that didn't currently have either a device, a camera or microphone or internet access,” Boney said.
The university can fix some students' problems by mailing them a device or pointing them to special offers from internet providers. But in Meyer's case, the best advice they can give is where to find a public place with wifi.
“The reality is that the remainder of this semester is going to be a bridge, temporary solution. It is not the ideal solution, because public policy in North Carolina was lagging in this area,” Boney said.
The Federal Communications Commission estimates about 6.5 percent of Americans lack access to broadband internet, but other research suggests the true number could be twice as high. And many more Americans who can connect to internet service in their area do not subscribe due to the cost.
Boney and Meyer say they want to get this message to lawmakers: that now's the time to treat the internet like a public utility, something so critical to daily life that the government should ensure access for all residents.
“We didn't initially believe that about electric power,” Boney said.
That changed in the 1930s, as the North Carolina General Assembly and the federal government subsidized rural electrification, bringing power to rural homes across the state.
A Private Sector Solution To Internet Access Could Be On The Horizon
“We hear you, and we know the need and we very much want to get you there as quickly as we can,” said North Carolina Representative Jason Saine.
Saine says he's heard plenty of complaints from constituents about internet access, especially since a statewide stay-at-home order went into effect to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Saine co-chairs the House appropriations committee and is a self-described IT guy by trade. He says the legislature has made one important move in recent years to subsidize broadband installation, paying private companies part of the cost of laying down lines on roads like the one Meyer lives on.
“But there's a limited pot of money,” Saine said, with about $10 million per year in matching grant funds appropriated as a provision of the GREAT Act.
And the state's limited resources are expected to shrink after this period of record unemployment, but Saine says there may be an alternative solution in the works.
“I think it's very realistic to think that within the next year and a half, there will be an option of actual real high speed internet that they can pull essentially from the air at an affordable price,” Saine said.
That solution relies on entrepreneurs like Elon Musk. Last month, Musk's company SpaceX launched a rocket sending a load of low orbiting satellites spinning around the earth. The goal of the project, known as Starlink, is to use those satellites to beam internet across the countryside.
Representative Saine said he hopes SpaceX will bring Starlink to North Carolina, which has a big demand, with one of the largest rural populations of any state.
“All they need is just a clear pathway to make sure that they can operate here,” Saine said.
Saine said that likely wouldn't cost the state government any money, just the time to get regulations in place. But, Starlink isn't off the ground yet. Even in the best case scenario, rural residents would have to wait a year or two to get the service.
With that prospect still off on the horizon, Ty Meyer will spend another evening driving his homework to the public library.