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Communities struggle to get connected, despite billions in broadband investment

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Communities struggle to get connected, despite billions in broadband investment

May 21, 2024 | 7:00 am ET
By Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism staff Leslie Bonilla Muñiz
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Communities struggle to get connected, despite billions in broadband investment
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Luke Dwenger accesses his coursework online from the parking lot of his local library while his dad Todd Dwenger waits with him in the car. (Photo by Mitchell Lierman)

By Arnolt Center staff Mitchell Lierman, Yanai Levy, Ryan Murphy, Stephen Prager and Tyler Spence.

Luke Dwenger checks his assignments over the public Wi-Fi connection at the Greensburg Decatur County Public Library while his dad Todd waits with him in the parking lot.

The library closed four hours ago, but the Dwengers’ internet is down again.

That Wednesday night isn’t the only night the Dwengers have had to leave their home in search of stable internet. The family has visited the library, local parks and the McDonald’s parking lot to make sure the kids can do their homework.

Relying on the library’s Wi-Fi from the parking lot was far from the perfect alternative to the Dwengers’ unreliable internet speeds at home. But Tyler and Luke Dwenger still had homework to finish.

“It’s kind of a luck thing because occasionally it’s on, occasionally it’s off,” said Tyler Dwenger, a senior at Greensburg Community High School.

The Dwengers pay Frontier Communications $50 for internet every month, but their connection is often too slow to accomplish basic tasks like sending emails.

The family is not unique.

When everyday activities like school and business meetings were moved online during the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of Americans from big cities to rural towns were left scrambling to find reliable high-speed internet.

According to the consumer data monitor BroadbandNow, a third of Decatur County residents lack download speeds over 25 megabits, the amount considered fast enough to support streaming high definition video, loading webpages, and sending emails across one to three devices at the same time.

Rural residents are more likely to not have service because low population densities make it more expensive for internet service providers (ISPs) to connect them with existing infrastructure, according to the Indiana Broadband Office.

“The return on investment is lower for a provider compared to in a city because there are fewer homes, so fewer customers,” office spokeswoman Lela Sibley said in written responses. She noted costs can still be a barrier in urban areas too.

Rural Indiana is far from alone. Communities around the United States have been struggling to receive adequate internet access for over 15 years.

The U.S. government has attempted to remedy this divide for over 16 years — and has thrown increasing amounts of money at the project of broadband access.

Since 2009, federal programs have dedicated at least $92 billion to fixing this issue for families like the Dwengers. Reporters at the Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism at Indiana University looked at three federal laws funding major broadband programs.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 allocated $20.4 billion toward broadband development, while the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund of 2020 put $7.2 billion toward the cause.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 dedicated a mammoth $65 billion to access, mostly through the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program. Indiana got a whopping $868 million out of the program.

The state is also using funding from the federal American Rescue Plan to invest more than $350 million in constructing new broadband infrastructure. In March, $500,000 was approved for underserved areas like Decatur County to improve service.

In addition to these big-ticket bills, dozens of smaller programs across 15 federal agencies have poured millions more into improving digital equity, according to the Government Accountability Office.

But some critique the funding structure.

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Todd Dwenger explains how his home internet often pushes him to drive his son Tyler Dwenger into town to use the wireless internet at the public library. (Photo by Mitchell Lierman)

“Historically speaking the approach has been: let’s give money to the big ISPs,” Chao Jun Liu, a legislative associate at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Arnolt Center. “It sort of disappears into that black box.”

Indiana’s broadband office said the BEAD program requires states to award funds through subgrants to ISPs.

“Non-profits and local governments are eligible, but only after the state can reach every address with appropriate broadband infrastructure,” Sibley, the office’s spokeswoman wrote in comments to the Capital Chronicle.

And she defended the process, adding, “The Indiana Broadband Office believes that the subgrantee selection process that matches funding to internet service providers to connect every unserved and underserved location in the State is the most efficient use of this grant money. Partnering with internet service providers ensures that current infrastructure is expanded, and new development meets industry standards and practices in a timely manner.”

‘They’re used to it.’

“Sometimes, it just spins. Well, it spins and it goes out on you and it’ll say ‘no internet connection,’” Todd said. “These guys, I feel sorry for because, you know, that’s their fun,” he said, gesturing towards his sons who often try to play online games with their friends – when their service lets them.

The Dwengers have download speeds of only about two megabits, 50 times lower than what the Federal Communications Commission considers “high-speed internet.”

Roughly half of the people who lacked high speed internet in 2009 still don’t have it today, according to data from Arizona State University and the U.S. Census Bureau analyzed by the Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism.

In 2023, as many as 24 million Americans lacked access to adequate broadband internet speeds as defined by the FCC. Last month, when the FCC quadrupled the required speed to meet their definition of broadband, it found that this number had risen to 45 million. The problem is worst in rural areas.

Internet companies have been slow to make progress in areas where potential profits might not justify the costs, especially in areas with few providers to choose from.

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Major broadband initiatives have received increasingly more funding over time. Dozens of smaller programs across 15 federal agencies have also poured funding into digital equity, according to the Government Accountability Office. (Graphic by Ryan Murphy and Yanai Levy)

In Gary, one of Indiana’s largest cities, more than 31% of households lacked broadband of any kind as of 2019. That year, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance ranked it the 4th worst-connected city in America.

Many other Indiana counties lag nationwide progress on broadband. In rural counties like Benton, Warren, and Union, the vast majority of residents lack high speed service.

The broadband office’s Sibley said the federal BEAD program requires it to connect “every unserved and underserved location in the state.”

She said the office would begin the subgrantee selection process in the fall, and that all poorly connected areas throughout Indiana will be accounted for through the awards. ISPs must build out the projects and spend the grant money by the end of 2028, in accordance with BEAD program guidelines.

For now, however, 11.2% of Indiana residents lack access to modern broadband internet.

That’s no surprise to the Dwengers.

Todd Dwenger and his children have shared the same issues.

He said it once took him 15 hours to work through an eight-hour training class for a religious community service program. “A half hour class took me almost an hour to do because it just buffered,” Todd Dwenger said.

For more demanding tasks like playing online games, the internet is essentially unusable. When Luke Dwenger’s friends play video games online, he often has to tell them he can’t join. While video games are a hobby, they represent a great deal of how young people connect socially. Over 47% of teens play video games with their real life friends, and the inability to do so can make rural community living that much more isolating.

“They just kind of know by now because it happens all the time,” Luke Dwenger said. “They’re used to it.”

Better service is always 5 years away

While they have a rural address, the Dwengers don’t live in the middle of nowhere.

They live just six miles from the center of Greensburg, the largest town in Decatur County. However, their $50 monthly rural internet subscription struggles with simple tasks like sending emails and finding coupons for groceries.

Frontier’s website did not list connection speeds when enrolling new customers, despite pushing service add-ons to its basic internet package with flashy marketing images that some of their users might struggle to load.

Indiana joined the FTC and five other states in a 2021 complaint against Frontier. In the complaint, Indiana’s Office of the Attorney General (OAG) wrote that Frontier “committed unfair, abusive or deceptive acts” by leading consumers to believe Frontier offered service quality it could not actually live up to.

Indiana’s claims weren’t heard in court. Attorney General Todd Rokita and Frontier reached a $15 million settlement which requires Frontier to “change their advertising efforts to accurately represent to Indiana consumers both the availability and reliability of their internet service” according to an OAG news release.

The settlement required Frontier to invest in internet infrastructure throughout Indiana over four years. The company has until September 2024 to spend the $7.5 million; it’s spent $7, 045,658 to date, the OAG said Friday.

Frontier was also required to credit — from September 2023 to September 2025 — customers who pay for internet that doesn’t live up to advertised speeds. So far, for September 2023, that’s meant $6,153 in credits to 214 customers, per the OAG.

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Tyler Dwenger checks his grades for his final semester of high school on his school-issued laptop. (Photo by Mitchell Lierman)

The company must also deliver two compliance reports annually to the state through September 2026. The OAG said it’s received two reports to date.

“(We) continue to review these reports and any consumer complaints we receive that may deal with the same issues to ensure continued compliance,” an office spokesperson said in written responses to the Capital Chronicle.

Frontier didn’t return multiple requests for comment.

But for customers like the Dwengers and thousands of others across Indiana, truth in advertising doesn’t fix their slow internet.

The Dwenger boys hope to continue living in Decatur County.

Tyler graduates high school this year and wants to stay in Greensburg. He hopes to begin online classes within the next few years, but slow internet speeds in his hometown may serve as a barrier.

“Sometimes I do take tests at home from that and they’re only allowed a certain amount of time,” Tyler Dwenger said. “I start it and I’m like, I hope the next 35 minutes of internet are good, because if they’re not, I’m not going to be able to get in this test. If I was to get to do an online school, I would have to take that risk a lot more often.”

Todd says local politicians have campaigned on improving connectivity for Decatur residents for years. “But I heard that would be five, 10 years down the road. I’ve heard people talking about putting new towers in different places.”

“Every time you hear about it, it goes away.”