I am writing this from my car, which is parked in a Taco Bell parking lot. I have been here for hours now, and I have lost count of the times employees have looked out the glass front doors to see if I’ve left yet. Every time I notice them, I sink a little lower in my seat. I don’t want to be here. I’m embarrassed. But I don’t have internet in my home, and without public wifi, I can’t work.
When I moved to Drain, Oregon, population 1,169, I did so because it was my dream to buy a small farm and land is cheaper here than in larger towns. What I didn’t realize was that in rural America, internet options are often limited.
Drain, for example, has satellite, hot spot, and fiber optics. I have tried a satellite and a hot spot, but the Douglas fir forest that surrounds my property blocks the signal. Ideally, I would have fiber optics, the most reliable source available to me, but my property is located behind railroad tracks. That means I have to pay a nonrefundable $1,500 application fee to the internet company to find out from the railroad company how much they will charge me to have a fiber optics line installed over the tracks. The internet company will not give me an estimate other than to say “it is very expensive,” and I cannot afford to gamble $1,500.
I am not alone — 33 million people in America live without internet, including 15 percent of folks living in rural areas. Though 34 percent of those without it simply don’t want it, 32 percent say they find the internet “too difficult to use,” and 19 percent are like me and cannot afford it.
JB Brown, 40, is a military veteran and business owner who lives in a small town of 537 people called Mineral, Virginia. He, too, lives without home internet access. He says he, his wife, and four children have gone without it for three years because the satellite service available is “very spotty” and “if you go over a certain amount of gigabytes they slow your internet down unless you purchase more at a crazy cost.” While he says the cost is not worth the unreliable service, the lack of internet has cost his business money. “I use an online platform for all of my bidding and contracts,” he told me. “I’m willing to bet I have lost well over $20,000 of business because bids have to get done in a timely manner.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic, as many others watched Netflix and worked from home and ordered groceries online, those without the internet learned to adapt to a slightly different lifestyle. For me, it was DVDs and chill, it was work-from-library freelance writer, it was cruising the produce aisle myself, old-school style. JB’s wife, Vanessa, completed the majority of her master’s degree from her phone. We make it work.
I’d gotten used to my internet routine pre-pandemic. On days I needed to work, I would drive 15 minutes to the Cottage Grove library because the internet there is more reliable than the one in Drain. If I was lucky, I’d get my favorite seat at the corner table next to the window and an outlet. Sometimes, if I had to work before or after business hours to make a deadline, I would spend nights and early mornings working in parking lots that had wifi. It was uncomfortable and the internet was never reliable, so I typically avoided writing projects with a quick turnaround. As with JB, it has cost me money.
But now that the libraries and businesses I used to rely on for internet have closed, the threads of connection I clung to before have been taken away. I cannot rent DVDs. I cannot go to the library to work. Even cruising grocery store aisles is a bad idea.
The irony is that because most places are closed, people without internet access need it to survive more than ever. If an employee isn’t considered essential and can’t work online, they lose their income. Students without internet cannot join their classmates on Zoom, setting them back in the school year. Workouts are going online. Therapy is going online. Online shopping has been deemed the safest option.
But those in rural communities — as well as low-income communities — are being left behind. Kids who live in shelters may now have access to school-mandated devices, but they still lack internet access to do their schoolwork. Athena Lathos, 25, who is a library assistant at Albany Public Library in Albany, Oregon, says 20 percent of the people living in her county do not have internet and rely on their library for service. “The closing of our library has had an immediate impact on low-income and marginalized members of our community,” she told me. Since the pandemic began, “we have people parking along our perimeter for free wifi. Those who don’t have the ability to park like that, they have no recourse right now.”
The recent stimulus bill does include approximately $100 million “for grants to cover the construction, improvement, or acquisition of facilities and equipment needed to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas.” But it is unclear if this will help individuals like me and JB who cannot access preexisting services.
When I am able to get online, I am amazed to read about the ways people are coming together virtually in the pandemic. People are singing to each other, reading poetry, offering free yoga classes, and more. Humans are so resilient and creative and determined to connect. It’s inspiring. I just wish I could participate.
This pandemic has exposed, more than ever, just how necessary access to the internet is. My hope is that our government will do more in the future to remove barriers and ensure easy access to every American. Until then, I’ll be here in rural Oregon, lurking in fast-food parking lots in search of a few wifi bars and wondering, “What even is a Tiger King?”
Karie Fugett is a contributing writer for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Her memoir, Alive Day, is forthcoming with Dial Press.