Working from home during COVID? In this rural suburb, slow internet means it’s not an option | State policy

Angie Bueche moved to the parish of St. Helena about fifteen years ago to get away from the crowds, traffic and noise that had become common around her old home in the bustling suburb of the parish of Livingston, to Watson.

But the move a few miles north brought a new set of challenges for the elementary teacher, who works with students with disabilities. In rural Saint Helena, high speed internet is out of reach for most people – it’s expensive and, for those who can afford a connection, tends to be extremely slow.

For 50-year-old Bueche, these obstacles mean her workdays usually start around 5 a.m., when she wakes up to walk past Livingston-St. Helena at her job at South Live Oak Elementary School. In a quiet classroom, she spends the early hours of the morning preparing presentations on Google Slides for her students, who often need personalized lesson plans. They show up around 7:30 a.m.

Bueche said she would prepare for home classes if she could. But with just one painfully slow hotspot connection to share with her daughter and husband, juggling her daughter’s class prep and college classes becomes a challenge.

Slow internet brings endless frustrations.

“It would be nice to have a movie night,” Bueche said. “But we don’t know if a movie can play to the end or if it will buffer, because we can’t rely on internet service. I have the impression that this should be acquired in 2022. “

In many ways, the broadband problem in Louisiana is a microcosm of that experienced in rural parts of the United States. Fast internet tends to be less accessible in the large and sparsely populated upstate, an area that quickly undermines jobs and residents. Internet providers see little incentive in these places to shell out the money to install fiber optic cables – the gold standard in broadband connectivity.

But at a time when so many daily tasks have moved online amid the COVID-19 pandemic, even residents of the outskirts of cities like Baton Rouge find themselves outside the broadband network.

In St. Helena, a parish of some 10,000 people in the pine-wooded hills leading to the Louisiana-Mississippi line, only 6.3% of people have access to internet connections strong enough to play video games, according to a study carried out in 2021 by Broadband. Now an industry watchdog. The research firm found that the choice of suppliers in Greensburg, the seat of the parish, is “essentially non-existent.”

Most people have to cope with rigged connections by installing satellites near their homes. These are expensive – typically costing between $ 100 and $ 200 per month for a subscription – and tend to generate extremely slow connections.

Broadcasting a class at home over satellite Internet is a “dream concept,” said Dusty Lott, another resident of the ward.

“When we’ve had to do this the past few days, our satellite internet is so slow that it makes more sense to drive and sit in the library or McDonald’s parking lot and connect to the free wifi,” said said Lott.

Angie Bueche is pictured with a Netgear Hotspot Air card for mobile wifi service, for which she pays a monthly fee to AT&T.

“We don’t have enough broadband”

Although many Louisianans find themselves in Lott and Bueche’s position, the lack of reliable data makes it difficult for officials to grasp the exact extent of the high-speed Internet problem in the state.

The Federal Communications Commission maps broadband service, but the agency pulls data from industry self-reports widely believed to be inaccurate.

Independent organizations that aggregate data from a mix of sources, however, like Broadband Now, show that Internet problems are more pronounced in rural northern parishes like Catahoula, Lasalle, and Bienville. In total, about 1.6 million Louisianans do not have regular high-speed internet access, according to an analysis by consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

Rural areas just beyond sprawling suburbs can fare just as badly.

In St. Helena, Washington State and the Parishes of Feliciana, a 2,000 square mile area north of Baton Rouge inhabited by less than 100,000 people, Broadband Now has found that only 18% of residents have access Internet connections that download 100 megabytes of data per second – the speed required to play video games or stream to two devices at the same time.

In Greensburg, the company found that average internet speeds hovered around 12 megabytes per second. The average in Houston is 187 Mbps. That of New York exceeds 500 Mbps.

The recovery from Hurricane Ida at the end of August further highlighted the already pronounced lack of access to Saint Helena, as residents struggled to communicate in the aftermath of the storm. With no cell service and inconsistent internet in the police jury building in Greensburg, parish officials decided to drive south and set up a makeshift command center in Pine Grove, a small community a few kilometers east of where Bueche lives.

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A team is working to restore power in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in Greensburg, Louisiana on Tuesday, August 31, 2021.

WiFi was one of the last utilities to return to nearby Tangipahoa parish after the storm – and residents grew angry as businesses took months to reconnect service in areas on the outskirts of Hammond, the largest city in the parish.

In St. Helena, however, “we don’t have enough broadband for this to be a problem,” state representative Robby Carter, D-Amite, said after the storm. Carter said he relied on satellite for internet service at his home near Greensburg.

“It bothers me”

Often in Bueches’ house the question of who can use the Internet comes down to a game of rocks, paper, scissors.

This is because the AT&T household single access point cannot support more than one streaming or working person at a time, leaving the family to “check on each other” and negotiate which tasks are the most important. more important, said Bueche.

Even having a single person on the hotspot can cause problems: While taking university courses remotely due to COVID-19, Bueche’s daughter is reportedly resorting to tests in her mother’s classroom in Live Oak or at a friend’s house – places where she could work without the anxiety that her internet connection could suddenly be cut, erasing her progress.

Residents of the parish of St. Helena have long driven on roads that appear to be crumbling as quickly as they are being repaired.

Sometimes Bueche has found the bad connection impacting his work. Her students are with her “from the moment they get off the bus until the moment they get back on,” she said, which means her class preparation has to take place after hours.

“And if I’m not able to do something I need to do at home because the internet is down, it messes me up,” she said. “I go to class unprepared. Or I have to set my alarm clock early the next morning to make sure I do.

“An integral part of daily existence”

Funded by a coronavirus relief windfall and with money from the federal government’s $ 3.2 trillion infrastructure bill expected to follow, Louisiana is launching an ambitious program to expand access to broadband in its many underserved areas.

When the coronavirus pandemic struck and society turned to technology to stay connected, the rural town of Ville Platte was left behind. …

State officials traveled from city to city across Louisiana, discussing with local leaders how best to meet the broadband needs of communities in three areas: access, affordability, and knowing how to best use tools. digital, said Veneeth Iyengar, head of state’s new broadband connectivity and development office.

Iyengar said the office has made progress in its efforts, with about a quarter of the state establishing broadband access growth-focused task forces made up of local leaders. To address the lack of solid data on broadband access, the office has also encouraged residents to complete a survey released by the Delta Regional Authority assessing local broadband speeds, and is preparing to make requests received. for its initial funding of $ 90 million for local services. level of public broadband progress in the coming weeks, he said.

This money will likely be topped up with another tranche of funds approved during the state’s next legislative session. And even more money is likely to follow the infrastructure bill.

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Roderick Matthews, Director of Emergency Management for St. Helena, discusses the portion of the St. Helena Parish population without electricity or water during the Hurricane Ida clean-up at St. Helena Parish in, Louisiana, Thursday, September 2, 2021. Several of the residents who are still without water service are concentrated in the southern part of the parish.

“The goal for us is to have fiber optic in every home,” said Roderick Matthews, director of emergency operations for Saint Helena. “We’ve talked about it, are looking at it as a possibility with all these other sources of funding. But I think the fact that the infrastructure bill has been passed is now as if it will probably be a reality.

For residents like Bueche, this reality cannot come soon enough. For her, it’s as if each passing month of the pandemic and its accompanying digital boom has left behind where she lives.

“Internet addiction for life has changed,” she said. “It has become an integral part of everyday existence.”

Where she lives, however, accessibility has yet to catch up.

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