Spanning the ‘Digital Divide’: Internet Access Has Long Been a Problem in Rural Areas — Since COVID-19 It’s Become an Emergency


A recent Lewis County Public Utility District survey found that 97.7 percent of respondents in the county view the internet as an essential service, yet only 23 percent of households reported they had broadband internet, which is defined by the FCC as a minimum of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) in download speeds.

In other words, just about everyone in Lewis County sees the internet as a necessity to carry out the day-to-day tasks of their lives, but more than three-quarters of the county is lagging behind with DSL, satellite, dial up, or no internet at all.

It is a problem that has existed in Lewis County and other rural and low-income areas in the United States for years, and it has been labeled the “digital divide,” a term that was coined in 1999 — a testament to how long the issue has been identified, yet still lingers in communities like Lewis County.

The digital divide has changed faces over the decades as new technology replaces the old. Now, in 2020, the digital divide has become more problematic during the COVID-19 pandemic. With some adults being asked to work from home and kids attending school via an online, distance-learning model, government entities and private companies are scrambling to fill the gaps.


Haves and Have-Nots

Broadband internet is available in Lewis County, it is just a matter of where you live that dictates if you have access to it.

Broadband is preferred over its predecessors — DSL, satellite and dial up — because it provides faster, more reliable internet speeds at a cheaper rate, but it is connected by fiber infrastructure, sometimes called fiber-to-the-home, that only exists in select parts of the county, Lewis County Public Utility District Public Affairs Manager Willie Painter explained.

“There are areas of the county that do have adequate service … and it’s mostly those areas which correlate closely with I-5,” Painter said. “Parts of Centralia, parts of Chehalis, parts of Toledo, some areas along Highway 12. But the further away a resident lives from I-5 and Highway 12, generally speaking, their download and upload speeds fall below broadband level access.

In most parts of Centralia and Chehalis, your options for broadband internet are either Comcast, Wave or Breeze. According to their websites, Comcast offers broadband internet starting at $24.99 per month for 25 mbps, Wave offers 100 mbps starting at $39.95 per month and Breeze offers 25 mbps starting at $59 a month. 

Comcast and Wave offer multiple deals with a range of speeds and prices for residential and business customers and are capable of offering download speeds greater than 900 mbps. Breeze’s options are more limited, but still can provide download speeds that can be considered high-speed broadband internet.

In other communities that are situated off of I-5 and Highway 12, like Adna, Napavine, Winlock, Mossyrock, Morton, Glenoma, Randle and Packwood, broadband internet is significantly more limited in its availability.

Wave is offered in select parts of Napavine and some East Lewis County communities, and Breeze is available in parts of Adna. 

ToledoTel is well regarded for its services in Toledo and parts of Winlock, but is the only local internet service provider (ISP) that offers fiber-to-the-home in Lewis County for residential purposes.

When you get farther away from the I-5 corridor and Highway 12, the next best option is with an ISP offering DSL internet, which can be prone to a number of issues in addition to offering lower speeds at a higher price.

Centurylink is the most common ISP for DSL in Lewis County and can offer 15 mbps starting at $49 a month for residential customers, according to its website, a considerable drop off from fiber-to-the-home competitors.

The difference between being forced to pay higher prices for less download speed can sometimes be a matter of yards.

In Winlock, the digital divide can literally be observed by the train tracks that run through the downtown area. According to Winlock Mayor Brandon Svenson, broadband internet haves and have-nots are counted by whether you are east or west of the train tracks.

On the west side, where many of the businesses are located, you are afforded the luxury of being able to connect with ToledoTel, but on the east side, you are stuck with Centurylink.

Svenson said he has hardly ever heard anyone complain about ToledoTel’s coverage, but Centurylink has been inconsistent.

“I hate to speak for them, but that is the kind of feeling I get about Centurylink, I don’t know if we’re a big enough market. I don’t think they care,” Svenson said regarding Centurylink’s services in Winlock. 

Out in Morton, where the PUD’s broadband internet infrastructure runs right along Highway 12 and is leased out to Wave, the services are offered in very few locations, said Morton Mayor Dan Mortensen.

Mortensen said if your house doesn’t get fiber-to-the-home, then you have the option to pay Wave to get your house connected to the existing infrastructure. Mortensen recalled a Morton family who was interested in getting their house connected but it would have cost thousands of dollars to do so.

“It becomes very prohibitive,” Mortensen said.

But for those who live even farther off the grid, like Mineral residents, your best option is Centurylink DSL, and it isn’t an ideal one, says Mineral Lake Lions Club Secretary Paula Hopkins.

“Centurylink said they moved some of their power sources and I was told it was going to get better,” Hopkins said. “And it actually got worse.”

Svenson said he also heard that faster, more reliable internet would be on the way from Centurylink, but based on the complaints he still receives, he suspects it never happened.


Schooling and Working From Home in 2020

Perhaps Lewis County has been able to get by with its broadband internet access in the past, but in 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing students to learn online and some parents to telecommute, it has exacerbated the problem.

ToledoTel COO Dale Merten, who is also a board member of the Lewis County Economic Development Council, says in the age of COVID-19, issues with insufficient access to broadband internet become more apparent now that entire families are using the limited bandwidth that is available.

“Really, who is hurting the most are the students and the people that have to work from home because their business is still shut down or locked down,” Merten said.

Take for example one of the many families in Lewis County that use a DSL provider. Under normal circumstances, a parent could likely work from home with the 10 mbps their plan likely provides and, in theory, would be able to get by.

But now, with their kids back home learning online — pulling from the same 10 mbps of bandwidth — and a parent also working from home, it becomes too much and no one can get anything done.

“That can happen very quickly,” Merten said.

Merten added that it isn’t just the typical family of four that experience this problem too. Believe it or not, the average household has 17 wireless devices connected to the internet, Merten said, and often people don’t even realize it.

“We know that because when our customers do call and complain about slow speeds we can log in and see every gadget they have connected,” Merten said.

From the perspective of Lewis County schools, their facilities usually provide the best, most reliable internet in their respective communities, particularly outside of the Twin Cities.

And there are more than 12,000 students enrolled in public schools in Lewis County, according to the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, and almost all of them will be learning online in some capacity.

Each school district The Chronicle spoke with said it was their intention to provide help to every student within the district, though it is a lot easier said than done.

For students that have limited access to the internet, most schools have opted to purchase wifi hotspots, mostly from T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular.

The price tag on the hot spots range from $20-40 per device with data expenses that are $10-20 a month.

According to Centralia School District Superintendent Lisa Grant, there is no uniform way that Lewis County school districts are paying for this. It entirely depends on the funds a school district has available and the grants they can get their hands on.

“We are using CARES Act, federal dollars right now,” Grant said regarding how they are paying for the hot spots. “We don’t have a lot of other dollars in our budget.”

Grant said the Centralia school District has purchased 400 WiFi hotspots and 100 “cradle points,” which are essentially wifi hotspots on steroids for students in harder to reach areas, that ran them just under $60,000 in total, though approximately $43,000 of it was for the significantly more expensive cradle points.

All around the county school districts are picking up hotspots to try to connect their students to the internet — Winlock picked up 220, Onalaska needed about 115, Morton acquired 60 and expected they would need more.

Yet all of it can perhaps be seen as slapping a bandaid on a wound that needs greater attention.

A lack of broadband internet has spelled trouble for the growth of Lewis County and will continue to do so, Merten said. It is why he believes something ought to be done at the federal and state level, kind of like how electricity was addressed in the 1930s.

“Internet has now become just a basic utility,” Merten said. “Back in the 30s when all the PUDs and electric companies wired up rural America, the reasons we did that is the same reason we need to do it for the internet.”

Prior to 1930, the electric industry looked similar to what the telecommunications industry looks like today — a handful of large companies dominated approximately 75 percent of the industry, according to the University of Oregon.

In 1932, then-presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt vowed he would end it by calling on Congress to create “a corporation clothed in the power of government but possessed of the flexibility and initiative of a private enterprise.”

By 1933, Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act which created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a federally owned corporation that would handle a number of utility services in the poverty-stricken Tennessee Valley including providing electricity to households.

Over time, the presence of TVA modernized the region. Electricity provided by TVA fueled the growth of industries which in turn provided more jobs, among other improvements.

TVA gave way to a mixture of the public utility districts and private energy providers that Americans are now familiar with today.

Merten added that you don’t need to look any further than Toledo to see how broadband internet access will stimulate growth in a community.

“We have fiber at every tax parcel in our 400-square-mile service territory whether there is a house there or not,” Merten said. “People are buying properties like gangbusters and building houses because of the fiber, they are moving here specifically for the fiber so they can telecommute.”

But obviously, Toledo is the exception in Lewis County rather than the rule.


Why Some Suspect Broadband Internet Expansion Lags Behind

Expanding broadband infrastructure requires a lot of money. Merten said it costs roughly $50,000 per mile to invest in fiber-to-the-home infrastructure. And no one is positioned better to make substantial investments in broadband internet infrastructure than the large ISPs that are available nationally, like Comcast or Centurylink.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that “defends civil liberties in the digital age,” says large ISPs don’t consider investing in expanding their broadband internet services because it isn’t conducive to their goal: appeasing short term profit margins that they can boast at quarterly shareholders meetings.

Merten agreed, saying this is precisely the mindset that has been adopted by large ISPs, and it is partly what separates a local provider like ToledoTel from their larger competitors.

“What I see is the bigger companies are laying off a lot of people, they’re trying to streamline as much operations as they can, invest as little as they have to and, you know, their share price is still doing pretty good.”

To prove their point, the Electronic Frontier Foundation pointed to Frontier Communications, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April, as an example of how large ISPs treat investments in expanding their broadband internet services.

Because of Frontier’s bankruptcy filing, the public has a unique look into the finances and decision making of the telecommunications company’s brass, a perspective that would otherwise never be released had it not been for the bankruptcy.

By Frontier’s own estimates, they projected that they would stand to net $1 billion in profit over a 10-year period with a $1.9 billion investment into upgrading three million households currently with Frontier DSL.

However, Frontier would see those profits on the back end of the 10-year period while they would report losses on the front end.

This, the Electronic Frontier Foundation argues, is the core of the issue. Any large ISP — whether it is Frontier or Centurylink — could make a profit off of fiber-to-the-home services, you just have to make the investment and give it time to pay itself off. 

And in rural areas where there is oftentimes little or no competition, a large ISP that is still offering DSL, like Centurylink, has little incentive to pay the money to upgrade to fiber-to-the-home when they are already making money off the outdated DSL.

“The private market is not necessarily going to be able to come up with a viable solution in every area for everyone, so that is something we just may have to accept,” ToledoTel CFO Phil Cappalonga said.

On a positive note, Cappalonga said the awareness around broadband internet at the federal level has grown considerably in recent years. Cappalonga said he has seen U.S. Senators begin to advocate for treating broadband internet access like electricity was treated in the 1930s.

“There’s lots of talk, so that’s the first step,” Cappalonga said.

In Washington, the Department of Commerce’s Public Works Office has $17.7 million in available funds to give in grants and low-interest loans for the purpose of broadband internet expansion. However, they have received requests for funds that total $76.3 million, with most of the requests coming from “hardship areas.”

Department of Commerce spokesperson Penny Thomas said the Washington State Broadband Office agrees that it will take public-private partnerships to fix the internet problems around the state.

According to Public Works Board Chair Scott Hutsell, the Public Works Board’s funding is intended to eliminate the rate of return limitation that often makes these projects less appealing.

“The flexibility of our funding allows local communities to select the solution that best fits their unique needs, whether that solution is publicly run, privately run, or a public-private partnership,” said Hutsell in an email. “The stipulation with our funding is that any infrastructure built must be available for public use for a period of 15 years.”