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Shelter-in-Place Orders Underscore Rural Internet Limitations

Since New York and the state started issuing stay-at-home orders in mid-March, families that might have accessed the Internet through a library or school have been forced to find other alternatives or go without.

(TNS) — COVID-19 has laid bare the struggles that some area families face due to limited Internet connection.

In Middleport, broadband service is not available to the Vanderwalker's household, so the family has been utilizing a smartphone to create a hot spot, which is an Internet connection created by using the data from a cellphone.

On Stone Road north of Route 104, there's no cable, and thus no broadband option for any of the four households on the block.

"It's a dead-end road, so we have no cable run down our road at all," Alicia Vanderwalker said.

Since the pandemic reached New York and the state started issuing stay-at-home orders in mid-March, competition for access to the hot spot in the Vanderwalker home has grown fierce. The children, who previously could access the Internet at school or Royalton-Hartland Community Library, have to take turns doing their school work at home. And their parents need access, too.

"Now it's just, we basically battle over who's got the hotspot at what time," Vanderwalker said.

It has resulted in them having to assign times for Internet usage, with Alicia using the Internet during the day for her work and her children using it at night, during her lunch break or when she's not working.

Complicating matters further, this month the family already used up its monthly data limit of 25 gigabytes, so the Internet connection has been slowed to the point that certain content doesn't load.

"The kids can't pull up the videos or the Zoom meetings or anything like that," Vanderwalker said.

That's a problem for her daughter, who takes online classes from Genesee Community College.

"She sits there forever. She sits in the yard to try and get a better signal," Vanderwalker said. "We can go different places in our yard and the signal gets a little bit better, but there is certain times she just gives up and doesn't do it."

Broadband access in rural America has been an issue for years.

According to CNN, a 2018 report from the Federal Communications Commission showed that more than 18 million Americans nationwide lack access to high-speed Internet.

New York State's Public Service Commission required Spectrum Internet, formed by the Time Warner Cable-Charter Communications merger, to significantly boost Internet speeds upstate and expand broadband service to 145,000 residential units that currently don't have it.

Lara Pritchard, a Charter spokesperson, claimed the company has completed the extension of its network to 100,421 new homes and businesses as of Jan. 31, 2020, which she claims is 13,000 ahead of the PSC schedule. Charter plans to meet the state requirement of 145,000 by Sept. 30, 2021, she said.

"Spectrum is paying 100% of the cost of the 145,000 homes we are building in underserved areas in New York State, and do not receive any government subsidies. We've also committed an additional $12 million to help fund additional broadband to areas that are still without available service," Pritchard said. "We have made a huge commitment to investment in broadband to unserved areas and continue to fulfill on that commitment — ahead of schedule — every day."

Niagara County Legislator David Godfrey and Orleans County Legislature Chair Lynn Johnson, who helped start the Niagara-Orleans Regional Alliance, are spearheading an effort to get both counties to 100% Internet connectivity. NORA will be submitting an application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for funding through the ReConnect Loan and Grant program to accomplish broadband expansion in both counties. The application isn't finished yet, so the details have not been finalized.

Johnson and Godfrey both indicated the USDA is supportive of the two-county application.

An inventory done, about five years ago, showed 4,481 unserved addresses between the two counties, 2,943 in Niagara and 1,538 in Orleans, according to Godfrey.

Those numbers do not include properties that are underserved, meaning the Internet connection speed is less than 25 MB per second download speed.

Godfrey said he does not have an exact estimate, but believes it could be approach 10,000 or more between the two counties.

Data usage limits, like the one affecting the Vanderwalker household, are another barrier.

Godfrey also pointed out that the pandemic and the increased usage of the Internet is overloading Internet towers, and at some locations in the county he's done speed tests and gotten less than 1 mb/second download speed.

"I've gone and done speed tests at 9 o'clock in the morning or 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and at some times I get like a 0.5 mb/second. You literally could go and click on your screen and you might as well go pour yourself a cup of coffee because it takes 2, 3, 4, minutes for a screen to come up," Godfrey said. "The reason is that customer may not be necessarily degraded it's the fact that now there are so many people on that tower during the day. The kids are home. Everybody is working from home. The towers are basically melting because they can't handle the volume."

Johnson said Orleans County is experiencing similar problems with Internet towers being overloaded with increased traffic.

"What little Internet that we had in our rural areas is now drained to the point of what we used to have with the old dial-up connections, that's what it reminds me of," Johnson said.

Pritchard said Spectrum's towers have been able to handle the increased traffic.

"We built our networks to exceed maximum capacity during peak evening usage, and even with the increased network activity we are seeing in the daytime – especially in areas with larger COVID-19 closures – levels remain well below capacity and typical peak evening usage in most markets. Our network continues to perform well downstream and upstream, the growth in both of which have shown signs of stabilizing. We continue to monitor the situation – and our network – closely and are poised to adjust resources as needed to provide the reliable Internet and essential services our customers depend on," Pritchard said.

©2020 the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal (Lockport, N.Y.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.