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Biden Wants To Increase Rural Access To High-Speed Internet

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

More than 14 million Americans do not have high-speed Internet, which is something the Biden administration wants to change. The problem is it's not exactly clear where the dead zones are. Here's North Country Public Radio's Emily Russell.

EMILY RUSSELL, BYLINE: Wini Martin lives in the tiny town of Thurman, N.Y., in the Adirondack Mountains. It's as rural as you can get. There's no gas station or grocery store here. She's standing by the side of the road with her grandson.

WINI MARTIN: Miles, just pay attention. Just don't get hurt.

RUSSELL: Miles is holding up his phone trying to get cell service. Right now, this is the only way they can get online.

MARTIN: He just found out that you can get it in the middle of the road, which we couldn't before.

RUSSELL: The Martins have had Internet over the years. But service providers come and go. They've been offline for months now. And that's been tough on the lumber business Wini runs with her husband. It's also been hard on the grandkids who spend part of the week here.

MARTIN: They have to either just not bother doing schoolwork while they're here or else they go to their father's place of employment to use the Internet. It's awful.

RUSSELL: Not having Internet means no online banking. No remote work. No Facebook or email and, in the coronavirus pandemic, no telehealth visits.

JIM SIPLON: It wasn't life or death 10 or 15 years ago. Today, it's fundamental. It's as important as electricity and water.

RUSSELL: That's Jim Siplon. He heads the Economic Development Corporation for Warren County in rural New York. Siplon says they've been surveying people like the Martins, trying to figure out who does and doesn't have broadband. For people who are connected, they're also asking, how good is your service?

SIPLON: What are the speeds that people are experiencing? What are they paying? Can they afford it? All of those things are fundamental parts of the equation.

RUSSELL: And fundamental to allocating a lot of new federal funds. The most recent COVID relief package included $7 billion to bring more schools and libraries online. The Biden administration wants to pump another hundred billion dollars into broadband as part of the infrastructure bill. But the FCC says its service maps are outdated. It just launched a new mapping effort. But that update will take years. So a lot of counties and states like Georgia, North Carolina and Maine are making their own maps. Christopher Ali is a professor at the University of Virginia whose work focuses on rural broadband.

CHRISTOPHER ALI: It's great to hear that so many local communities and counties are doing their own mapping initiatives because our federal map is a giant disaster.

RUSSELL: Ali and other experts say data collected by the FCC is often misleading and just plain wrong. If one home on the block has broadband, the FCC considers that entire block covered. Plus, Internet providers only have to report the speeds they advertise, not their actual speeds. Ali says this has led to a lot of money wasted.

ALI: We were still using the bad maps when the FCC decided its first phase of winners in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

RUSSELL: That's a $20 billion fund, part of which was doled out last December by the Trump administration. The goal is to bring more rural homes and small businesses online to spark economic development.

ALI: We saw a lot of, let's say, questionable allocations, such as paying companies to wire a parking lot.

RUSSELL: It's important that doesn't happen this time around, says Wini Martin. She says families and businesses in rural towns like Thurman, N.Y., deserve reliable and affordable Internet.

MARTIN: Yes, we choose to live here. We love it here. We feel that we're privileged by living in the Adirondacks. But it's like civilization has gotten up and moved past us.

RUSSELL: Martin is scheduled to get back online soon with a new Internet provider. It's unclear, though, when the millions or potentially tens of millions of Americans will get connected.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Russell.

(SOUNDBITE OF KONTAKTE'S "ASTRALAGUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.