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Everyone Knows Rural Broadband Is A Big Problem. Georgia Maps Show Just How Bad It Is.

George and Barbara Glidden retired to the North Georgia mountains to be near their grandchildren. One tradeoff was access to reliable broadband internet. It was so bad that they canceled their service. Instead, they visit the library weekly to check their email.
George and Barbara Glidden retired to the North Georgia mountains to be near their grandchildren. One tradeoff was access to reliable broadband internet. It was so bad that they canceled their service. Instead, they visit the library weekly to check their email.
Credit Emma Hurt / WABE
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A lot of rural America is a desert when it comes to high-speed internet access.

Communities without broadband have a hard time attracting new residents and businesses. And the only way the ones that are already there can get online is by using their phones — when they have cell coverage.

The federal government and states spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year to address the problem.

But it’s not always clear where the money should go. The federal maps of rural broadband service, put together by the Federal Communications Commission, have long been considered inaccurate.

The state of Georgia has taken a lead in trying to improve those maps to help people such as George Glidden and his wife, who retired to the North Georgia mountains from Massachusetts about 15 years ago.

The upside was they got to be near their grandchildren. The downside became their lousy internet service.

They ended up canceling it altogether.

“It’s no good,” he said. “It’s not worth what you get with the problems.”

It was slow. It was spotty. At best, he said, it was dial-up. So now the couple visits the Lumpkin County Public Library in the county seat, Dahlonega, once a week to check their email.

Lumpkin County Library
People with inadequate internet access at home visit this library 24 hours a day to get things done online. At night, they pull up in the parking lot to connect to Wi-Fi. (Emma Hurt/WABE)

The Gliddens use their computers at home a lot. But when George edits pictures on Photoshop for his church, he has to deliver them in person, through a USB drive.

“When I go to the church, I put it on their computers,” he said. “So I don’t send stuff through the internet itself.”

People visit this library 24 hours a day to get things done online. At night, they pull up in the parking lot to connect to Wi-Fi.

Tracey Thomaswick, the library’s branch manager, said people come for everything from online job applications, court paperwork and driver’s license applications to streaming television shows.

“But it doesn’t matter,” she said. “That’s what we’re here for.”

The library is one of the few public places in the county with decent broadband. It got fiber-optic data service when a nearby university installed it six years ago. 

The area’s state senator, Steve Gooch, has made rural broadband access one of his key issues since being elected in 2010.

“One of the biggest complaints I received ever since I was sworn in was the lack of … affordable broadband and dependable broadband,” he said.

But he realized those complaints didn’t square with the FCC’s rural broadband maps.

“If you looked at the FCC maps, then we should have all kinds of internet service here in rural Georgia,” he said. “And we knew that wasn’t happening.”

That’s because for the FCC, if just one home or business has access, the whole census block counts as served.

“So you could have 1,000 homes, but if only one of them had internet, they would consider the entire thousand houses as being served,” Gooch said.

To address that issue, Gooch authored a bill allowing Georgia to do its own maps last year to fix the problem.  

It became law, so now the state is surveying every location, instead of every census block, to prove the FCC’s maps are inaccurate.

As it turns out, they are.

A three-county pilot showed the FCC maps missed about half of the locations without broadband.

“This is a one-of-a-kind mapping. This has not been done by any other state. Hasn’t been done at the federal level,” said Deanna Perry, the executive director of Georgia’s rural broadband program in a recent presentation to state lawmakers.

broadband mapping pilot
Georgia decided to map itself, to prove the FCC’s maps were inaccurate. A three-county pilot shows just how inaccurate the federal maps are. The statewide survey is scheduled to be complete by June. (state of Georgia)

“But what we do know is that there is a big push because everyone knows the FCC maps are inaccurate,” she said.

“The dirty little secret here is the maps have always been awful, and everyone has known that the maps were always awful,” said Harold Feld, senior vice president at the national advocacy group Public Knowledge.

He’s been working on broadband access for nearly 15 years and said the digital divide is still very real: “That is just simply no longer tolerable for people.”

USTelecom, a trade association of broadband providers, made its own maps in Virginia and Missouri. The results, released a few months after Georgia’s, showed the FCC maps were off by nearly 40%.

The maps matter because they affect where grant money goes. Jessica Rosenworcel, one of five members of the FCC, explained that at a Senate oversight hearing in August.

“Over the next 10 years, we are going to distribute $4.5 billion to rural communities. If we get it wrong, they’re going to pay a really big price,” she said.

At that same hearing, the commission’s chairman, Ajit Pai, called the map a “mess,” and, in fact, the FCC recently announced it is redoing its maps. Georgia expects to finish its own by June.

Feld called the new maps “a very big deal. The consequence of bad mapping has been that consistently we have overreported access to broadband in the country.”

The new maps will be steps forward, agreed Chris Mitchell, director of the community broadband networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

“But it doesn’t necessarily help us to solve the overall problem of how are we going to get this high quality service to everyone,” he added.

Mitchell said the maps need to show more than whether a house is served.

Gliddens. Broadband service. library
The Gliddens, like many in their area, go to the library because it is one of the few public places in Lumpkin County with decent broadband. The library is moving to a new building.

Remember George Glidden from Lumpkin County?

His house technically has broadband service. But in reality, it wasn’t worth much.

“We need pricing data. We also need reliability data,” Mitchell said. “That reliability component is very important, but that’s not showing up in any maps right now, really.”

In the meantime, the Lumpkin County Library is about to move into a new building. And it’ll have twice the number of computers as the old one to satisfy demand.