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.
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.”
“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.
“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.”