In much of Georgia, lack of Wi-Fi makes online homework harder

Trinity Sanders, 15, a freshman at Morgan County High School, works on her algebra homework from the backseat after her mother, Sheila Sanders, (right) drove her to Union Spring Baptist Church on Thursday, April 2, 2020, in Rutledge. The biggest obstacle to distance learning is finding Wi-Fi. Morgan County has a low-income student population and not every home has internet access. So the school district asked the local church to be a hot spot. CURTIS COMPTON CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

“Technology can be a great equalizer when it comes to health care, education — to the point where rich, poor, middle class can all get the same benefits.”

That quote attributed to billionaire Jeff Greene, who traveled the country in his youth selling circus tickets to pay his way through Harvard Business School and spent over $30 million in the summer of 2018 trying unsuccessfully to win the Democratic primary for governor of Florida, shows the promise of distance learning.

But the reality lies in something that still remains unequal: access to reliable, high-speed internet.

Nobody in the country knows that quandary better than students and educators in the rural areas. Morgan County is about an hour’s drive from downtown Atlanta, but many of its residents have spotty at best Wi-Fi access. Now with students having to get their class work from home, the divide between the haves and the have-nots has become wider.

The Rev. Robert L. Terrell agreed to have his church, Union Springs Baptist, set up as a 24-hour Wi-Fi hot spot.

“We’re kind of centrally located and easy to access,” he said. “And of course, we’ll keep safe and keep our distance from each other.”

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It’s one of two hot spots that residents in the tiny town of Rutledge, population 781 at the 2010 Census, can access. Otherwise, they’ll have to head to Madison, the county seat, where the library has a similar setup. Those who need internet access can get it in the parking lot. That allows them work from their cars and maintain social distancing.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution visited the church parking lot Thursday on the first day of the Wi-Fi program. There were about half a dozen students diligently working on everything from fractions to AP Language and Composition.

Sheila Sanders drove her 15-year-old daughter Trinity to the church so they could finish up the week’s assignments that required internet access.

“Living in the country is nothing like it is in Atlanta,” she said. “I only have one neighbor who’s house I can see from mine.”

With such low density of residents, it’s not economically feasible for internet providers to install a lot of fiber optic cable or invest in high-speed access.

“Even on a cellphone call, I have to stand outside most of the time,” she said.

The high school freshman sat in the back seat nodding her head.

“We have great service at school,” Trinity said. The district has about 3,200 students in four schools.

State leaders are working to address the lack of Wi-Fi service by utilizing libraries and other public buildings as hot spots.

Gov. Brian P. Kemp and the Georgia Department of Community Affairs recently launched a website to inform Georgians about ways to connect to high-speed internet throughout the state.

“The fight against COVID-19 is impacting Georgians’ ability to access health care, receive educational instruction, and serve customers in traditional ways,” said Kemp. “High-speed internet is important for Georgians to continue receiving care, learning, and teleworking while they follow guidelines for social distancing. We’re grateful so many internet and mobile phone providers have stepped up to meet Georgians’ connectivity needs in this critical time.”

To support social distancing requirements, broadband providers are offering various options for Georgians to connect to the internet. For example, Comcast is offering new customers 60 days of free Internet Essentials service, which is normally available to low-income households for $9.95/month. The company is also increasing internet speeds for the Internet Essentials service for all customers.

Also, by visiting broadband.georgia.gov, Georgians can find locations to which they can drive for accessing Wi-Fi around the state, made available from telecommunications cooperatives and government agencies. While many public libraries are currently closed, some are still offering limited services such as Wi-Fi outside their buildings.

Best friends Jared Sanders and Trenton Robertson, juniors at Morgan County High School drove up in their own vehicles Thursday at the church hot spot. They’re both concerned that they’ll have to wait until summer or maybe even next school year to get their welding credentials.

“We were just getting started with the hands-on stuff when work-from-home started,” said Jared.

Although they’re both disappointed that school is out for the rest of the year, they’ve found ways to pass the time.

“You don’t have to social distance yourself from the fish,” joked Trenton. “After I get done with this homework, I think there’s a spot with my name on it.”

Wi-Fi options

Comcast is offering new low-income customers two free months of internet service if they apply by April 30. After the promotion, regular rates apply. Information: internetessentials.com/covid19

Georgians can find locations to which they can drive for accessing Wi=Fi around the state at broadband.georgia.gov.

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