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Rural broadband is a problem, and Georgia is mapping it

Emma Hurt Oct 23, 2019
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People without internet access at home visit the Lumpkin County Library 24 hours a day to use its fiber-optic broadband connection. At night, they pull up in the parking lot to connect to Wi-Fi.
Emma Hurt/Marketplace

A lot of rural America is a desert when it comes to high-speed internet access. And that’s a drag on economic growth: Communities without broadband have a hard time attracting new residents and businesses, and the only way the ones that are already there can get online is by using their phones — if they have cell coverage.

The Federal government and states spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year to address the problem. But it’s not always clear where the money should go. The Federal Communications Commission has mapped the availability of broadband, but critics have long attacked those maps as inaccurate. 

So the state of Georgia is making its own maps in order to help people like George Glidden, who retired to the north Georgia mountains from Massachusetts with his wife, Barbara, about 15 years ago.

George and Barbara Glidden retired to the north Georgia mountains, where broadband internet service is scarce. They visit the library weekly to go online. (Emma Hurt/Marketplace)

The upside: being near their grandchildren. The downside: lousy internet service — so lousy that they ended up canceling it altogether. 

It was slow and spotty, he said, as fast as dial up at best.

“It’s no good,” Glidden said. “It’s not worth what you get with the problems.”

When he edits pictures on Photoshop for his church, Glidden delivers them in person on a USB drive. 

“When I go to the church, I put it on their computers,” he said. “I don’t send stuff through the internet itself.”

When Glidden and his wife want to go online, they visit the Lumpkin County Public Library in the county seat, Dahlonega. 

Patrons visit the library 24 hours a day to go online. At night, they pull into the parking lot to connect via Wi-Fi.

Tracey Thomaswick, the library’s branch manager, said people come to complete job applications, court paperwork and driver’s license applications. Others come to stream television shows.

“But it doesn’t matter,” she said. “That’s what we’re here for.”

The library is one of the few public places in the county with decent broadband. It got fiber-optic data service when a nearby university installed it six years ago. 

The area’s state senator, Steve Gooch, has made rural broadband access one of his key issues since being elected in 2010.

“One of the biggest complaints I received ever since I was sworn in was the lack of affordable broadband and dependable broadband,” he said. 

But he realized those complaints didn’t square with the FCC’s rural broadband maps. 

“If you looked at the FCC maps, then we should have all kinds of internet service here in rural Georgia,” he said. “And we knew that wasn’t happening.”

That’s because if just one home or business in a census tract has broadband access, the FCC counts the whole block as served. 

“So you could have 1,000 homes, but if only one of them had internet, they would consider the entire thousand houses as being served,” Gooch said.

To address that issue, last yeat Gooch authored a bill allowing Georgia to make its own maps.

Georgia decided to map broadband availability to prove that maps prepared by FCC are inaccurate. A three-county pilot shows the federal maps missed half of all addresses without broadband service. The statewide survey is scheduled to be completed by June. (Emma Hurt/Marketplace)

It became law, and now the state is surveying every location instead of every census block. And so far, it’s proving that the FCC’s maps are inaccurate: A three-county pilot showed the FCC maps missed about half of the locations without broadband.

“This has not been done by any other state, hasn’t been done at the federal level,” said Deana Perry, the executive director of Georgia’s rural broadband program in a recent presentation to state lawmakers.

“But what we do know is that there is a big push because everyone knows the FCC maps are inaccurate,” Perry said. 

“The dirty little secret here is the maps have always been awful, and everyone has known that the maps were always awful,” said Harold Feld, senior vice president at the national advocacy group Public Knowledge. He’s been working on broadband access for nearly 15 years and said the digital divide is still very real.

“That is just simply no longer tolerable for people.”

USTelecom, a trade association of broadband providers, made its own maps in Virginia and Missouri. The results, released a few months after Georgia’s, showed the FCC maps were off by nearly 40%.

The maps matter because they affect where grant money goes. Jessica Rosenworcel, one of five members of the FCC, explained at a Senate oversight hearing in August: “Over the next 10 years we are going to distribute $4.5 billion to rural communities. If we get it wrong, they’re going to pay a really big price,” she said.

At that same hearing, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai called the the commission’s map a “mess.” The FCC recently announced it is preparing maps. Georgia expects to finish its own by June. 

Feld called the new maps “a very big deal.”

“The consequence of bad mapping has been that consistently we have over-reported access to broadband in the country,” he said.

The new maps will be steps forward, agreed Chris Mitchell, director of the community broadband networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. 

“But it doesn’t necessarily help us to solve the overall problem of how are we going to get this high quality service to everyone?” he said.

Mitchell said the maps need to show more than whether or not broadband access is available to an address. 

Remember George Glidden from Lumpkin County? His house technically has broadband service. But in reality, it wasn’t worth much. 

“We need pricing data. We also need reliability data,” Mitchell said. “That reliability component is very important, but that’s not showing up in any maps right now, really.”

In the meantime, the Lumpkin County Library is about to move into a new building. To satisfy patron demand, it’ll have twice the number of computers as the old building.

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