Chapter 1

The Slowest Internet in Mississippi

The Slowest Internet in Mississippi

Stuck with huge bills for Internet service that barely works, Calhoun County schools have missed out on the digital revolution.

Calhoun County, Miss.

Here in the tiny town of Vardaman, everything moves slowly. Especially the Internet at the local high school.

The trouble begins early each morning. Teachers sweet-talk their computers while trying to load the school’s online attendance system. A few get lucky. The rest shake their heads, write the names of absent children on a sheet of paper, and send a student to the main office.

Today, school secretary Lisa Sutherland is given 15 names to enter. Each click of her mouse is followed by an excruciating delay. The system times out. Sutherland grits her teeth and starts over. Nearly half an hour after it begins, a process that should take seconds is finally complete.

Waiting for Computer to Load

"Not having what we need is aggravating, and it's awful for the children," says Lisa Sutherland, a secretary at Vardaman High School, of the district's slow Internet connection.

The 2,500 students in Calhoun County can’t do Internet research in school. Computerized state testing here last spring was a disaster. Teachers have given up on using online tools in the classroom. The district has given up on buying the new digital technologies that are transforming schools elsewhere.

And the most outrageous part: For the privilege of being stuck with the slowest Internet service in all of Mississippi, the nine-school Calhoun County district is billed $9,275 each month.

“Frustrating is a mild word for it,” said Mike Moore, the district’s superintendent. “Smaller districts like us are at a tremendous disadvantage.”

It’s true, despite a rapidly evolving landscape.

Over the past two years, the country has made huge strides in connecting schools, including those in rural areas. More than three-quarters of districts nationally now provide at least adequate Internet access, according to a new analysis by the broadband advocacy group EducationSuperHighway.

But 1 in 5 rural districts still can't access the fiber-optic cables that are bringing high-speed Internet to schools elsewhere, the analysis found. And even when they do get decent connections, rural schools are typically charged far more than their urban and suburban counterparts. In places like the vast, sparsely populated plains of western New Mexico, that means telecommunications companies routinely bill $3,000 per month or more for Internet service most U.S. schools could get for one-sixth the cost.

The result, experts say, is that many rural districts still face a steep climb to meet long-term federal goals for school connectivity, even though most currently provide students with the minimum recommended bandwidth.

"The challenge for rural America is the future," said Evan Marwell, EducationSuperHighway's CEO. "If we don't get affordable fiber out to those communities, they're going to get left behind."

Geography, bad policy, and a severe shortage of technical expertise within schools all contribute to the problem. So do the business practices of telecoms: AT&T and Verizon have been accused in lawsuits and other legal actions of bilking the system of millions of dollars, while many smaller companies have taken advantage of local monopolies and generous federal subsidies.

Ultimately, efforts to find a solution will be underwritten by the American people. Fees on consumers’ phone bills fund a little-known federal program called the E-rate. The E-rate in turn covers a portion of the cost of phone and Internet service for schools and libraries. Since its inception in 1996, the program has paid out over $30 billion.

This fall, it will begin paying out even more.

The Federal Communications Commission recently approved a huge increase in E-rate spending, to $3.9 billion each year. Over the objections of the powerful telecom lobby, the commission also approved a number of policy changes intended to help rural schools.

The idea is that more money, plus more competition, will add up to faster, cheaper Internet for thousands of schools like Vardaman High.

Critics on the right say the more likely result is wasteful spending.

Skeptics on the left question the commission’s reliance on market-based solutions, rather than better federal oversight.

But with the new E-rate money already flowing to schools, and with districts now positioning themselves to take advantage of the program’s new policies, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is confident that America’s rural schools are in for a major upgrade.

“Even if you’re in the most remote, rural area, it is [now] possible to get connectivity for your schools and libraries,” Wheeler said. “This can happen at scale.”

Falling Behind

On a steamy September morning, 23 of America’s 12 million rural public school students sit in second period world history at Vardaman High, a one-story red-brick building just off Sweet Potato Avenue.

YouTube Buffering

Vardaman High students and staff have mostly given up on trying to use the Internet at school.

Many are struggling just to stay awake.

A digital whiteboard, paid for with federal stimulus dollars several years ago, hangs on the classroom wall. Unable to reliably access the Internet, the $2,500 piece of hardware functions primarily as an expensive screen for teacher Brad Easley to project his lecture notes.

When Easley tries to load a YouTube clip about World War I, the students barely stir. They know what to expect: the school’s network bogs down under the strain of downloading an online video. For 40 minutes, they flip through fraying textbooks in search of answers to questions on a packet of photocopied worksheets.

After class, 17 year-old Clemmie Jean Weddle describes her growing anxiety. She’s worried about falling behind students at neighboring schools, with whom she will soon be competing for a slot at Mississippi State University.

“I had those 15 pages, and they had the Internet at their fingertips,” she says.

Student Junior C.J. Weddle
Bus Vardaman Mississippi Teacher With Device

Junior C.J. Weddle, top center, hopes to go to a four-year college, but worries that not being able to do online research in school will hold her back. “I feel bad for the kids,” says history teacher Brad Easley, bottom left.

The problems at Vardaman High aren’t limited to low bandwidth. By the end of the 90-minute history period, nearly a third of the students have their heads on their desks, and some are clearly asleep — a consequence, their teacher said, of how challenging it is to keep teenagers alert during long DVDs played in class.

Weddle, though, has never been afflicted by such complacency.

"She really wants to be big," said her mother, Ladonna Williams, watching C.J. from the deeply furrowed fields of the sweet potato farm that's been in the family for four generations. "She wants it to be an event when she comes back to Vardaman."

Girl With Dog
Farm Eggs Tractor

"This life is great, but I don't want to be confined to it," says C.J. Weddle, top. "You need farmers to feed America, but I'd [like to] get in a higher job where I can improve the techniques of farming."

For now, Weddle raises dozens of goats, chickens, rabbits, and dogs behind her mother’s tidy brick house. They’re her ticket to somewhere else: She earns money selling eggs to the ladies down the street, blue heeler pups to area cattlemen, and Easter bunnies to local families. Since she was 8, Weddle has also been showing her best livestock at statewide 4-H and Future Farmers of America competitions. In 2014, the teen’s prize goat Katie won her a $2,000 college scholarship.

“I’m not going to sit here all my life and this be the only option I have,” Weddle said. “There’s some great opportunities out there. You just have to be the one to go find them for yourself.”

In school, however, that determination is often stymied.

Take the Vardaman High quiz bowl team, which Weddle joined last year in order to travel the state and measure herself against other students.

In preparation for a recent contest, the Vardaman team booked time in the high school’s lone computer lab. For the better part of a week, the school’s network teetered between balky and downright hostile, often taking as long as 10 minutes to load a single page.

Weddle came home from the competition with an award for participation.

Losing at quiz bowl is bad enough, she said.

But it’s when she imagines life after high school that she starts to really get upset.

“I’m worried that I’ll get to [college] and they’ll say, 'OK, here’s your first research project, go do it,'” she said. “And I’m just sitting there, lost, like, 'What am I supposed to do?'”

Limited Bandwidth, Big Bills

The search for the cause of Calhoun County’s Internet woes eventually leads to a three-mile stretch of no-man’s land between two small Mississippi towns; to Jackson, the state capital; to Madison, Wis., where one of the district’s Internet providers is headquartered; and ultimately to Washington.

But the journey begins inside the Vardaman High teachers’ lounge, where a beaten-up blue sofa barricades a wooden door.

Inside that closet sits the school’s server. Behind that, mounted on the back wall, is a box. Out of the bottom of the box run two cables, one yellow, one gray.

Vardaman High School Router

"The astronomical fees we were paying to get the worst Internet service you could possibly find became a problem," says Calhoun County Superintendent Mike Moore.

Each contains copper wire capable of carrying 1.5 megabits per second of bandwidth - next to nothing in an era of streaming videos, cloud-hosted services, and online collaboration.

The first copper line was installed around 15 years ago. For years, it suited Calhoun County’s modest needs just fine.

Then the district, awash in federal stimulus money, decided to buy dozens of smartboards and desktop computers. Turned out, 1.5 mbps wasn’t enough to allow that many devices to get online at once, even if the district was being charged more than $4,000 a month to bring the Internet to all of its schools.

So Calhoun County went to its service providers, asking for faster speeds.

The companies offered to upgrade the district to 3 mbps of bandwidth, by running a second copper line to each building.

The cost: an additional $5,000 per month.

It seems outlandish. But with the federal E-rate program picking up almost 90 percent of the bill, Calhoun County officials determined that second copper line to be a plunge worth taking.

“We thought, 'Wow, that's, like, three times faster than what we're doing,'” said Moore, the superintendent.

Still, when Calhoun County tried to administer online state exams last spring, chaos ensued: Four-hour waits to log into the testing platform. Video-based questions that buffered endlessly, even after being left overnight to download. Students who had to solve math problems without the help of online calculators their computers couldn’t load.

“It was gut-wrenching,” said Raven Hawkins, the district’s testing coordinator.

“We felt helpless.”

A National Push

Across the country, the pressure is on to bring school Internet speeds up and prices down, especially in rural areas.

President Barack Obama has vowed to bring 100 mbps-or-better connections to schools serving 99 percent of U.S. students by 2018. States including Arkansas, California, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, and New Mexico are pursuing major upgrades to their broadband infrastructure. Backed by millions of dollars from the foundations associated with Microsoft's Bill Gates and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, advocacy groups such as EducationSuperHighway are rallying support.

The barriers are huge. But Wheeler of the FCC is adamant that a shakeup is coming.

Thanks to the biggest overhaul in the history of the E-rate program, the prices that telecoms charge schools will be transparent to the public, beginning this school year. Soon, it will be easier for schools to use federal funds to cover the costs of new construction on fiber-optic networks. Carriers who don’t offer competitive Internet speeds and rates to schools could lose other federal subsidies. And, perhaps most importantly, districts that can’t find affordable high-speed Internet on the private market will soon be able to use E-rate funds to buy or lease their own networks.

As one of the first test cases in the country, Calhoun County offers an early look at whether the changes will be enough.

The signs are promising: After years of previous fights failed to yield results, the E-rate overhaul has opened the door for a major breakthrough here. In April, Calhoun County received an offer for Internet connections 300 times faster than what its schools have currently, at about one-half the cost.

“It’s a perfect example of the power of what the FCC did, without ever having to put a shovel in the ground,” said Marwell of EducationSuperHighway.

But while there is much room for optimism, Calhoun County also serves as a cautionary tale. Due to a mistake largely of the district’s own making, the battle for affordable high-speed Internet here is not yet won.

And in places like New Mexico’s vast Catron County, home to just 3,600 people spread out over an area larger than Connecticut, the fight is just beginning.

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