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Rural Internet Access Remains Elusive

Rural Internet Access: Still Elusive for Many Americans

Internet access in rural America has improved but remains pretty rudimentary as far as speed goes.

This discourages a lot of rural Americans from investing in it at home. Those who are on a fixed income (especially elderly retired people) would rather get DirecTV and I can’t say I blame them.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is busy dismantling Net Neutrality even as nearly 40% of rural Americans still lack internet access according to its 2016 Broadband Report. You can read more about this in an article by Sharon Strover, an internet access researcher at the University of Texas – Austin published on The Conversation, an online journal supported by universities and foundations.

Rural Internet Speed Probably Won’t Improve

Writing about “reaching rural America,” Strover says the FCC is thinking of reducing its current minimum standards—25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads—in order to achieve a more robust statistic (at least on paper) for acceptable Internet access.

What about those ads claiming to provide fast downloads no matter where you live? Well, the equipment might be able to handle high speeds, but the actual infrastructure can’t because, Strover explains, providers don’t upgrade rural wiring as often as they do for urban areas. It’s a matter of economics: urban lines will reach thousands of customers inside a few square miles but it might need hundreds of miles of wiring to reach a few dozen rural customers.

Because the internet isn’t considered a utility, there’s no support for ISPs to extend more and better service to rural areas.

Most poignantly, Strover relates conversations with people who can’t even get DSL because they’re too far from the local cable company’s reach. They aren’t living off the grid—they have electricity, water, phone service—but since the internet isn’t considered a utility, they’re basically left out of the conversation. Satellite access, which is universal, is too expensive.

And guess what? The FCC is considering taking away one of their few options, the Citizens Broadband Radio Service. This broadcasts on a frequency range rural Internet providers might be able to use, but the FCC is thinking of giving it to the larger telecom companies.

Lack of Internet Access Reduces and Can Eliminate Opportunity

You don’t need me to tell you that lack of internet access compromises opportunities to find jobs, apply to college, and even turn in an impressive homework assignment.

Back in the pre-internet days, research meant going to the library. Luckier kids like me had encyclopedias at home to consult, at least for historical perspectives. The single library in the town where I grew up was open on nights and weekends, something that’s been curtailed in recent years across the nation as municipalities scramble to reduce costs. This obviously affects lower-income people who can’t afford internet access at all the most.

You need internet access to apply for jobs, particularly minimum wage jobs at national franchises from McDonald’s to Wal-mart. They’ve heavily invested in internet recruiting even if many of their target employees can’t get in.

The federal government has been trying to expand internet access through the FCC’s Connect America Fund. This was launched in 2011 to bring internet services to rural America. It’s had some success, but as FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has noted, there’s still a lot of work to be done, particularly to deliver high-speed connections.

The Fund works by auctioning opportunities for ISPs to expand into rural areas, bolstered by a grant program that will distribute almost $1.5 billion over ten years. According to its auction overview page, 103 bidders were selected in 2018 to provide fixed broadband services on four tiers. The Minimum tier falls below the FCC’s current standard and accepts 10/1 speeds.

This leaves one to wonder if low-speed internet even worth the reduced cost. If data can’t download, what’s a student or job applicant to do?

Many Rural Americans Get Internet Access At Libraries

Internet access available here.

Rural Americans turn to their libraries for internet access.

Of course, not everyone can get on the net during library hours. And most libraries limit the time spent on shared computers. Libraries in New York and Chicago, cities that both have leading universities and sizable low-income populations, began lending hotspot devices a few years ago that people could use at home to connect to the internet, usually through their own smartphones.

Strover and researchers Brian Whitacre of the University of Oklahoma and Colin Rhinesmith of Simmons University (Boston) have studied mobile hotspot loan programs operating in rural libraries in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Maine and in Boston. Their overall assessment found that the mobile hotspot device lending is useful to people who can’t afford, or can’t get the internet at home, but is certainly no substitute for regular, 24/7 internet access all the time.

Hotspot Device Loans: A Bit of Normalcy for People on the Wrong Side of the Digital Divide

You’ve probably heard of the Digital Divide that describes what amounts to the haves versus the have-nots in terms of internet access and resources.

Across all the sites, researchers learned that hotspot device loans eased this divide just a little bit, for a tantalizingly short time:

  • High internet costs is a major reason rural residents sought out hotspot devices from libraries.
  • Many used hotspot devices with prepaid phones because they couldn’t afford a regular cellular plan.
  • People want internet access not because of so-called FOMO (fear of missing out) but because they understand it’s about KOMO, or knowledge of missing out.

Users who filled out surveys rated the devices a 9 out of 10 90% of the time. The tiny number who gave a rating of 5 or below turned out to have received devices that malfunctioned or had unsteady cellular connections at home. Parents commented on how helpful the devices were for their kid’s homework. This echoes Commissioner Rosenworcel’s comments about the “homework gap,” a phrase she coined to describe the barriers faced by students with insufficient or no internet access at home.

Low Internet Access Generally Indicates Low Income

Even though it’s not a hot topic among politicians, rural internet access is something our elected leaders should care about it.

Why? Because being on the wrong side of the digital divide aggravates conditions that were already there. Americans on the wrong side of the digital divide live in older homes that haven’t been wired for internet access, and often in communities that don’t have easy access to libraries. That’s one reason why the hotspot device loan program was so popular: they could take it home!

A 2017 study by the U.S. Department of Education‘s National Center for Education Statistics looked at data from 2010 and 2015 and found modest increases in internet access among children ages 3 -17. Still, the news wasn’t good for rural children, especially those from minority backgrounds. Many still had no internet access or dial-up in 2015:

  • 41% of Black students
  • 26% of Hispanic students
  • 13% of white students
  • 11% of Asian students

Overall, 13% of all rural children had no internet access at home in 2015. Among those living in remote areas, the average was 18%. Interestingly, 13% of urban children also had no internet access at home. Looking at children from families at or below the poverty level, the report found:

  • 30% had DSL or cable dial-up or no internet access at home
  • 49% had fixed broadband of any sort
  • 12% had mobile broadband, including mobile dial-up
  • 9% had “access without a subscription”

Low-Income People Live in Older Homes Passed Over by ISPs

Cost may not be the only factor blocking internet access: older buildings in urban or suburban neighborhoods that have not (yet) been gentrified aren’t wired for high speed. And like their rural counterparts, they probably aren’t putting up satellite dishes either due to cost or landlord restrictions.

Michael Martin of the Census Bureau looked at data from the Bureau’s five-year American Community Surve released in 2018. Although he focused on access to high-speed internet, he couldn’t help notice that communities not receiving these services had a high concentration of Black or Hispanic residents. Native American reservations also show low rates of broadband access.

Martin notes that counties with just one high-speed provider had fewer subscribers, possibly because the lack of competition kept prices too high for consumers. Or maybe the speeds weren’t high enough or consistent enough.

It’s hardly shocking that access to high-speed internet connections are lowest where poverty is highest. Martin’s chart on page 28 of his report shows a light green sea of low access communities just where you’d expect them: in large swaths of rural America. West Virginia and Nevada, for example, really stick out from neighboring states. Eastern Arizona, where the Navajo Nation is located, is a swatch of white, meaning there is no or very low high-speed access.

School Districts Get Creative

As usual, it may be up to the school districts to figure it out.

The DoEd report highlighted a couple of creative ideas to deliver internet access that would work (assuming there’s funding) particularly well for rural students:

  • WiFi on school buses; many rural students spend an hour or more on school buses each day
  • Providing mobile hotspot devices for home use (similar to the library program)
  • Funding digital learning at home to obtain internet access (and avoid long bus rides)

Reinstating Net Neutrality could bring down costs, but not necessarily access. Redefining internet access as a utility would probably do a lot to narrow or even eliminate the digital divide. After all, “only” 600,000 American homes lack indoor plumbing!


Want to learn more about rural access to the internet and other key services? Check out this report from NPR’s Science Friday on Bridging the Digital Divide in Texas.

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Falling Off the Phone Trees

I’ve become pretty familiar with phone trees since I started providing phone captioning services for people with hearing disabilities about a year ago.

A lot of our fellow citizens who use this service, which is provided free from the Federal government through phone service taxes, are falling off the phone trees many businesses use to reduce the number of live customer service agents. Here in Arizona, “customer care centers” (aka call centers) used to be a thriving industry that’s rapidly being replaced by this type of phone automation.

Phone trees are programmed to force people to go online for their customer service needs. This is a problem for many elderly customers who can’t, or won’t use the Internet for a myriad of reasons. For many, a phone is their main connection to the outside world.

I’m seeing two trends, neither of which are good for elderly internet abstainers:

  • Long hold times interrupted with messages to visit a website
  • Complicated phone instructions requiring several inputs

Both include automated messages of varying speeds and at different volumes. This is definitely not senior-friendly.

The Phone Tree System: Internet or Else!

I’ve been amazed at the patience people have who remain on hold for a half-hour or more to settle a problem with credit cards or bank accounts. In many cases, they have no choice because they have trouble navigating Internet sites or they don’t go online at all.

Yes, such people exist and they still deserve to be served. Pushing everyone to use web-based solutions is not just short-sighted, it’s downright rude to those can’t access the Internet or simply don’t understand it. Or who, like one of my clients, refuses to “learn computers” but still runs a thriving business as offline as possible. I handle her Yelp and Google business accounts, which we agree are too important to allow someone to infringe upon.

Some phone trees are real hornets’ nests.

Older people take longer to process information and phone trees tend to be very rushed. Add in the inevitable two-second or so delay for people who read captions generated on their phones and they are quickly put in a vicious cycle of repeat-wait-repeat-wait-disconnect.

Customer-facing businesses need to understand that there are times when live, fluent customer service agents are necessary, even for the non-elderly or not-yet elderly. There are times when I opt for a live agent simply because the company’s online customer service process is so onerous it’s easier to put the phone on speaker and do something else while I’m on hold.

I’m fairly internet savvy so if I find a website to be burdensome, I can only imagine what it’s like for someone who retired around the time the internet took off.

Sometimes an older person will ask for the automated system to repeat something and are put on hold, where they get helpful advice to “resolve the problem faster” by going online to visit:

“www.VERYLONGBUSINESSNAME.com/customercare and click on the Help Me tab at the top right-hand side of the page.”

A person who doesn’t want to go online, or can’t, may get an estimated wait time as long as 40 minutes. Seriously.

I’m glad to report that most people who wait for a live agent are gracious to them. Agents are usually (but not always) polite as well, even if they have to be told to speak more slowly.

Some Phone Trees Force Callers to Distant Branches

Phone trees that force extensive interaction with the phone are the worst. And again, much of the problem is with instructions spoken too fast plus extremely limited time for callers to respond.

I’ve been surprised myself when I’m about to respond to a phone prompt only to hear “invalid response” because I haven’t entered the information yet. I’m still pretty spry but sometimes I have to take off my glasses to read an account or credit card number. This nanosecond of activity is apparently too long for some phone automation systems.

Now think of older people who move more slowly to put on or take off glasses or reach for a pair. They will never make the automated system happy.

Those who are waiting for a caption to come through often have their reading interrupted the command “invalid input please try again” which often flusters them. So they either press zero for an operator to be put on a longish hold, or just hang up. I’ve noticed that men hang up much more often than women.

Then there is poor-quality voice-recognition technology. Aging can affect a once-booming voice, but I’ve heard people quite clearly speak their account numbers only to be told, or interrupted before they finish, that “I did not understand you. Please try again.” If there’s a problem, put on a live agent on, preferably within a minute or two.

Calling the doctor? Be prepared to memorize a long list of “options”

numbered buttons
Press one if you’re calling from a physician’s office…

Physician offices have long phone trees with a lot of  “options” to remember. Here’s a typical example:

  1. If you are a physician or calling from a physician’s office, press one.

Do their calls go to some special Bat Phone that’s answered right away? Why do physician offices get priority anyway? Shouldn’t patients be the center of the medical universe?

2. If you are a pharmacist, press two.

3. If you are calling for a prescription refill, please hang up and contact your pharmacy.

4. If you are calling to schedule, change, or cancel an appointment, press three.

5. If you need to speak to a nurse, press four.

  • If you need to speak to Dr. Dre’s medical assistant, press 127594.
  • If you need to speak to Dr. Oz’s nurse, press 460367.
  • If you need to speak to Dr. Gupta’s PA, press, 9904523.

Actually, my sample names are too short. Many doctors seem to have really long names. To continue:

6. If you are calling for a referral, press five.

7. If you are calling for a medical records release, please fax your request to 212-555-4593.

8. If you are calling to speak to our billing office, please hang up and dial 888-555-4529 and dial extension 460285.

9. To repeat these options, press six.

Is this really necessary? How about offering a short menu like “Patients and their representatives press one. All other calls press two” and go from there.

Phone Trees Don’t Have to Be a Burden

I get it. Companies like automation and there probably is no going back.

Going forward, more seniors will be perfectly fine using the web to schedule doctor appointments, check their financial statements, and order take-out. My teenager, who works for a pizza chain, tells me how much people at work hate answering the phone because it removes someone from the “make line.” Phone orders often take several minutes, while online orders simply pop up a large order screen.

Too many phone trees expect too much from callers. If hiring someone to answer the phone isn’t an option, businesses that rely on this technology can make a few changes that make them easier to live with:

  • Drop the long-winded menus
  • Use the same voice throughout the menu
    • Slow down the tempo
    • Keep an even volume
  • Don’t bother with messages to entertain or inform people on hold. They can confuse callers who think they’ve been connected to a sales office. When a live person does pick up, the person waiting may not realize he’s no longer on hold! This sometimes results in the call being disconnected.

It’s OK to offer an online option to take care of customer service issues, but it should never feel like waiting for a live agent is some kind of punishment. Use a creative solution like an automated callback or a voicemail message that will be returned.

Remember, seniors talk to each other about how they’re treated not only by their children, but by doctors, financial advisers (who usually have excellent phone skills), and the customer service they get from services like credit cards, banks, and cable or DISH.