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Polk County, Fla., Faces Large Gaps in Broadband Access

Polk County, Fla., has had a broadband advisory committee and broadband plan for years, but many residents still have trouble performing duties for school and work due to a lack of affordable high-speed Internet.

No Internet connection
Flickr/ben dalton
(TNS) — Working from home can be a nightmare for Brenda Torres.

Since the onset of COVID-19 more than a year ago, Torres, 28, has been doing her job from the house she's lived in for the past 25 years. While her at-home gig as a community planner for the Central Florida Regional Planning Council might save her gas and travel time, Torres is challenged by one major issue: She doesn't have an Internet provider where she lives in west Frostproof.

"So where I live, there aren't any Internet providers. The only ones that exist are providers that do satellite Internet," Torres said. "From what I heard, they're not really reliable and they also make you sign a two-year contract without even trying it."

Satellite Internet, while more widely available, is often slower than a broadband connection. Both of those options are slower than fiber, which is even more rare in Polk County.

Torres is among the 25% of Polk County households that do not have a broadband subscription, despite the increasing need to have access to the Internet to do everyday activities.

"Every facet of life is connected to the Internet, and having access to broadband is very important," said Eddie Lake, pastor at New Bethel AME Church. "Many employers now have applications online, and so if you don't have access, have the ability to get online, to print, to sign, the ability to scan and send [applications] back, you limit the opportunities that you have."

When it comes to broadband accessibility, Polk County lags much of the state. Polk County first started addressing the issue in 2013 with the formation of the Broadband Polk Advisory Committee and the release of the Polk County Broadband Plan designed to solve identified issues.

But several years later, Polk families, particularly in rural and underpopulated areas, can still find themselves without steady network access. And those who do have sufficient broadband connectivity can face constant outages. Plus, even when broadband, satellite or cell tower services are available, their costs can keep them out of reach.

It's an issue local government entities have not fully managed to address. The Polk County Board of County Commissioners, for example, is just now broaching the issue, County Manager Bill Beasley said.

That's because the "quiet drum beat" of residents demanding solutions for accessible and affordable broadband has steadily risen as a result of "the reliance and the expectation having gone through this COVID journey."

"Because of what happened with everything shutting down, the issue with broadband has been compounded in that ... it is now being measured against what is expected to be a public utility, things like water and sewer, things that we sometimes take for granted," Beasley said.

Stephanie Madden, a Lakeland city commissioner and chairwoman of the city's broadband task force, said some people may not be aware of mounting pressure to fix issues with broadband coverage. But that doesn't mean they're not there.

"A lot of people don't know what they don't know. If they can get on Internet and can get on a Zoom call, they think they have plenty of coverage," Madden said. "Certain citizens who are still on copper wire with Verizon, the worst of worst technology, they would not be able to have a Zoom call going and a child playing a game."

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity's Office of Broadband produced a map of minimum Internet download speeds by census block. According to that map, large swaths of Polk County are "unserved," meaning people in those areas can only get between one and nine megabytes per second. By comparison, Spectrum service starts at 200 Mbps. There are also areas of the county without access to broadband service at all.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 2014 and 2018, 65% to 75% of Polk County households have a broadband Internet subscription. And according to a survey from 2013, Polk County ranks in the bottom 24 in the nation for high-speed Internet use.

According to the same U.S. census map, Polk County is part of a conglomerate of counties with lower Internet access, including DeSoto, Hardee and Highlands counties. Many other areas of the state fare pretty well, with the majority of the counties seeing access in the 75% to 85% range. Polk's neighbor, Hillsborough County, sees the highest rate available, with more than 85% of households holding a broadband subscription.

Marybeth Soderstrom with the Central Florida Regional Planning Council said access to broadband in Polk County is highly dependent on where you live.

"Some of our rural and smaller communities were definitely underserved still, and a lot of it has to do with the lack of infrastructure that's really needed to support higher speeds," Soderstrom said.

Lack of broadband access is a problem the region continues to battle. For example, the Broadband Polk Advisory Committee that released the solutions-oriented Polk County Broadband Plan in 2013 morphed into the Smart Community's LEAD Team within Polk Vision, Soderstrom said. It's a "team of individuals from different sectors — public, private, tech, IT" as well as other stakeholders that meet to try to look for ways to "collaborate and increase the availability and affordability of broadband within Polk," Soderstrom said. She's a co-chair of the team.

The team's vision is that "Polk County will have the fastest, most affordable and most accessible high-speed Internet services possible by 2030," according to its website.

While Internet might have once been considered a luxury, it's now a "critical infrastructure" similar to water and sewer service, said Shannon McPherson, program director for the Central Florida Regional Planning Council. She added that expanded broadband "is needed to help move our economic needle" as well as give people "access to job opportunities, expanded health care opportunities [and] academic opportunities."

Lake, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Lakeland, agrees. Improving access and affordability of broadband services is a priority for him as a ministry leader.

"I just think that where Internet and accessibility is anywhere, it ought to be everywhere the same," said Lake.

Additionally, he's noticed that lack of access to broadband aligns with other forms of marginalization in the community. He said that just as Black and brown Americans are denied access to financial opportunities, they are often left out of access to broadband.

"Just as there is an economic divide that we've noticed over the last 30 years, there's also a digital divide," Lake said. "If we're going to actually change our communities and change our country, we have to give people proper access to basic necessities."

In some areas where Internet is technically accessible, it can be unaffordable. Torres said to sign up for services through provider Viasat, she was looking at $150 a month for just 30 Mbps. Plus, she had to sign a two-year contract.

"I was willing to pay $150 a month, but I'm being told it's not reliable and I'm not even being given the chance to see if it's something that'll work for me," Torres said. "I have cousins who are like living in Tampa and are working from home. They're like, 'Why am I paying rent over there when I can come and stay over here?' But they can't because there isn't any Internet for them to do their work from home."

To work from home and complete assignments for her online master's program, Torres pays $25 a month for a hotspot through her cell phone carrier, Verizon.

Torres said she gets 15 gigabytes of data that's "somewhat fast" and it slows down significantly after that. Torres said between work, school and two other people in her household using the hotspot, she does nearly double her allotted "fast" data every month.

While the hotspot works for sending emails or surfing the Internet, Torres can't use it to stream Netflix and unwind after a long day. And it even presents challenges for some of her work. While participating in virtual meetings, Torres has to make significant adjustments, like keeping her camera feed off.

"I would be able to hear [my co-workers] whether through my laptop or through my phone and see their screen, but they wouldn't be able to see me," Torres said. "If I did share my camera, then it would be too slow and it would boot me off."

Torres will sometimes visit a local McDonald's or Starbucks and use its Wi-Fi connection for school assignments. But she has to make a trip to her office in Bartow if she has to present during a meeting because she doesn't want to disturb anyone else.

Torres' solution fits a larger trend: just because you have access to Internet doesn't meet you have everything you need.

"People want fast Internet," County Manager Beasley said. "Just because you might have access to Internet, if it's slow, in your mind it's not meeting your needs."

Plus, Torres pointed out, she can only afford her hotspot because she has an existing family plan with Verizon. And she'll have to add another when her niece starts school in the next couple of years.

In addition to being slow, outages or other major network connectivity issues can hurt steady use of Internet services. Polk County residents have expressed frustration in that vein with one of the area's main broadband providers: Spectrum.

For some, Spectrum is the only provider capable of bringing Wi-Fi to the home. Facebook groups for Lakeland and county residents can get flooded with complaints about the service, reports of outages and desperate pleas for another option — any option.

Natasha Ray lives in Winter Haven, "about four minutes away" from Legoland. She's a Spectrum customer taking online classes. She's noticed Internet outages getting worse lately, which is stressful because she relies heavily on her Internet access.

"It gets frustrating when you sit down to do a school assignment and oh, your Internet is down again," Ray said. "I'm always anxious when I have an online exam. I'm always anxious because I never know if I'm going to lose Internet right in the middle of it because it literally happens like that sporadically, all day long."

Ray said while she hasn't yet had an exam put in jeopardy by her Internet access, she has been unable to access assignments. She's also been unable to put her children, who are both homeschooled, on their online correspondence portal at certain times.

"At the back of the house, we get terrible signal. I can't even do my school work in the back of the house because there's very little signal," Ray said. "I think my biggest thing that really bothers me is we have a ... 1,800-square-foot home and our signal does not cover the whole home."

Michele Bridges, a North Lakeland resident, faces a similar dilemma. She runs two businesses out of her home, and her daughter uses the service for online classes, which she'll continue to do for her upcoming senior year. One of Bridges' companies is a travel agency, and the finicky service has led to her losing bookings.

Like Ray, she's noticed it getting worse recently. For both Polk Spectrum users, one word is constant in their lives: buffering.

"I have to unplug, reboot the system and then add the modem back in. That has been our issue the past couple of months," Bridges said. "It never did it before and now it's doing it multiple times throughout the day."

Bridges said because her family relies so heavily on the Internet, when it goes down, they have nothing. But she also doesn't see another option.

"Lakeland has a Spectrum monopoly where if you're not wired for fiber optic, which not everybody is, then Lakeland has a monopoly," Bridges said. "You do not have a choice of who you use for your Internet."

Ray and Bridges say they pay about $75 for Internet, half of what Torres was quoted for satellite Internet.

"I wouldn't even mind the cost if the service was better, if we weren't having outages all the time," Ray said. "You know, a 10-minute inconvenience here and there, OK. But a couple of hours for a service that you pay for gets frustrating."

When asked about reports of outages, Joe Durkin, the Charter Communications Florida director of communications, said that Spectrum has not had any "widespread outages" in the past month. He said a widespread outage would be a major impact on a service area, such as loss of power after a hurricane. He said reports of outages could be at a street or individual level.

And Durkin pushed back against the notion that Spectrum has a Lakeland monopoly.

"Spectrum has invested locally in bringing voice, video and Internet service to the greater Polk County area with starting speeds of 200 Mpbs with no modem fees, data caps or contracts," Durkin said in an email. "Other providers have the option to invest like Spectrum has and continues to invest significantly throughout our footprint to bring the products and services that meet the needs, interests and budgets of a wide variety of our consumers that we serve."

Like accessibility, the question of affordability is subjective.

"At the regional level, at the state level and even at the federal level, there is a recognition that the cost of high-speed Internet for a house is unaffordable for many people," Soderstrom said.

Federally, it's a problem that's being addressed with the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which offers a discount of up to $50 per month on a temporary basis to qualifying low-income households. Spectrum customers are eligible to apply.

"The more options, the lower the cost," Soderstrom said. "Many of our communities have one or two options, and that's really it."

For some living in those communities, moving is the real solution. Torres said she's exploring the housing market and having good Internet access is the top of her must-have list, cutting neighborhoods like West Frostproof out of the running.

"I have to find myself worrying about how reliable my Internet is for work and school when it's something that we should have and something that I should be able to depend on. I shouldn't have to go somewhere else to do homework or do a quiz or do a virtual meeting for work," Torres said. "Nothing is coming here and nothing has changed."

©2021 The Ledger, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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