How poor internet access is holding rural America back

DARNELL MOORE: From the capitol of Jackson Mississippi, through the rural towns of the Mississippi Delta, all the way down to the small southern city of Wiggins, Mic drove over one-thousand miles in three days to explore why Mississippi has fallen behind in the digital age — why so many of its residents lack access to fast wired broadband at home. PENNY SMITH: It’s been days, weeks that I wasn’t able to do anything so I got behind on bills and I was stressing ‘How am I going to pay this? How am I going to do that?’ DARNELL: But some people are going to great lengths and distances to connect more Mississippians to high-speed Internet. ROBERTO GALLARDO: When I get the question, “Why should I pay more for faster internet or why would I want faster internet?” Then I respond, “Well that’s like asking 100 years ago why do I want electricity when I already use candles? DARNELL: But change is happening, especially as younger, hungrier generations explore technological opportunities, like coding. PHILLIP WALKER: How do you not know how to code? DARNELL: I don’t know.
PHILLIP: How’d you get this job then? DARNELL: (Laughs) That’s a good question. ROBERTO: I don’t know how many miles it
is. It can be a 30-minute drive one day. And it can be a three-hour drive the next day. DARNELL: Roberto Gallardo knows these roads well. He moved here from Mexico in 2003 to obtain his Master’s degree. Now he drives across the state helping rural communities access new technologies and make the most of the Internet. Mississippi ranks dead last when it comes to fixed high-speed household Internet access. A third of residents don’t have fast wired broadband. Those who have it tend to be in urban areas. So it’s especially bleak for the rural communities of the Mississippi Delta. The delta stretches across the flatlands of northwest Mississippi, between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. It’s the birthplace of the blues, where inequality and misery spread through cotton fields worked by the enslaved. Poverty now plagues the region, and Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation. DARNELL: why are you traveling the roads two to three time a week to push this issue? Why important? ROBERTO: Because I believe the technology is not a silver bullet obviously but it can help level the playing field, not only between urban and rural but among different socioeconomic and demographic groups. DARNELL: Roberto says there are at least 70 fixed broadband providers in Mississippi, but rural communities still don’t have reliable Internet. It’s either too expensive or simply not available. So libraries in rural towns have become economic lifelines – the only places where people like Penny and Kevin Smith can get online. Penny works in marketing and Kevin is currently looking for work. DARNELL: How often are you here and why do you come to the library? What services do you get when you’re here?
PENNY: Before our internet got disconnected we never came to the library but then, I work from home so we started coming every day, so I can catch up on my work because that’s our only source of income because the economy down here ain’t so good. DARNELL: Is it a need or is it a want? Kevin: It’s a need for us because you know like you have to do applications online. PENNY: Especially with my type of work. It really don’t put no time for my life actually. See, if I was at home I could do it any time I want. I won’t have to be rushed and have to do this, have to do that. KEVIN SMITH: And there’s always money to be made, 24/7. DARNELL: High-speed internet doesn’t just make or break someone’s ability to find work. It’s an essential tool in improving education, communication and healthcare. And yet some of the towns Roberto consults with are reluctant to make this issue a priority. Leaders are worried about costs or more pressing issues like crime or unemployment. But that only drives Roberto, because he sees the broadband shortfall as the greatest threat to economic growth. DARNELL: You talked about this work requiring a lot of patience. What types of hardships and trials have you faced in doing this work over the past several years? What are the costs? ROBERTO: Community development is a process that moves very slowly. You cannot expect change overnight. You cannot reverse decades. You cannot change a mindset overnight. You’ve got to be patient and not be discouraged. DARNELL: The next stop for Roberto is the city of Oxford in northern Mississippi. Even Even though it’s a college town, some residents still struggle to get online. So Roberto is moderating a town-hall meeting for people fed up with high prices and limited bandwidth. GEORGEANNE ROSS: Friday I took orders from all my restaurants and I had, like I said, 135 restaurants. I should have been done by 1 o’clock. I don’t get done til 7 at night because it takes so long for responses to come through the line for me to finally get what the order is. And that’s just crazy. ROBERTO: Our first step is to get the county government to talk, at least get them to the table. The model has worked in other communities, if you guys mobilize your elected officials, at least you can get the conversation started, because it’s clear to you, and like any other rural community, the carrier just won’t do it. DARNELL: Extending broadband to rural communities is expensive for carriers because of the high costs associated with thinly populated areas. But some analysts say too many of those places are low-income neighborhoods. A new report by the Center for Public Integrity found that families in poor neighborhoods are almost five times more likely to not have access to high-speed Internet compared to affluent households in the US. DARNELL: Mississippi has the highest population of African-Americans in the country, it also has the highest population of individuals who don’t have access to internet. Talk about the connections between the two. ROBERTO: It’s an equity issue. People that can afford it, they may just suffice with what they can afford, and that may mean slower internet speeds, outdated technology. So that loops back into the carriers perhaps not seeing an ROI advantage of investing and so then that feeds back again. You get into this downward spiral thing. DARNELL: But Roberto is hopeful, especially when it comes to equipping the next generation. A reported five million households with school-age children don’t have high-speed internet at home. And that can put low-income students at a serious disadvantage. So Roberto works with local field agents and schools to make sure technology plays a role in Mississippi classrooms, like this one in the city of Wiggins. Students here are learning to code using toy robots. PHILLIP: I like to be creative with coding and how it works and how you can use it for stuff I just like it all. DARNELL: 11-year old Phillip Walker enjoys his school’s robotics program. He’s improving his computer programming skills and now dreams big about his future in technology. DARNELL: What do you think about having access to that type of stuff? PHILLIP: I think it’s kind of cool.
DARNELL: Why? PHILLIP: Because when you grow up half of the jobs in the USA involves coding. So if you don’t know how to code, you’re not going to be able to like work there and I like to code so…
DARNELL: Can you teach me because I don’t know how to code. DARNELL: See, I come from a generation where coding wasn’t a – no one told me how to code. It wasn’t available to me. But now I feel like I need to go back and learn. Today. PHILLIP: You really do. DARNELL: I may not know how to code just yet, but Phillip inspires me. The key to improving the digital divide in rural communities may very well rest on the younger generation–the young students and professionals who refuse to miss out on the digital revolution.

Danny Hutson

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