As broadband access expands, it's making a difference for rural families

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Posted at 1:00 PM, May 27, 2022

ODESSA, Texas — When the pandemic started, Michelle Villegas was in 6th grade. Now she's finishing up middle school, but not without some unpleasant memories from remote middle school.

"The tests would just, it would just load and load and load. Like I hated seeing that circle was just, it was in my nightmares, the circle!" she said.

The nightmarish loading circle is something that so many families across the nation can relate to as the pandemic exposed a weak link in rural America’s access to the internet. Michelle's mom says her heart broke watching her daughter struggle just to simply join a class.

"It was stressful, it was overwhelming, it was frustrating," she said.

The Villegas live on the outskirts of Odessa, Texas – a boom or bust oil town that’s one of many spots on the map without access to reliable internet.

According to the FCC, 6% of the country’s population lacks internet access. Narrowing in on rural communities, one in four lacks access – that’s 14.5 million people.

"I couldn't get on and I would call my mom crying because I was like, mom, I'm going to fail this. Like, my grades are so low because I can't do this," Michelle recounted.

Scott Muri is the superintendent in Ector County, where Odessa is located. When the pandemic hit and they had to move to remote learning over the course of a weekend, they found that 39% of their student body lived in areas with inadequate internet or no internet at all.

"Many of our kids do not live in an area of our community, that even if they had the money, they could access the internet, it's simply didn't exist," said Muri.

With that large of a percentage of students that couldn’t log on for remote school, they had to think of solutions. So they decided to shoot their shot and contacted SpaceX to be a part of their Starlink internet access pilot project and the multi-billion dollar company said yes.

"This big dad started to cry because he understood as a parent, what that a simple little dish was going to mean for his children because he had watched his kids struggle mightily to connect with their teachers," he said.

What Ector County has is a unique public-private partnership. However, federal dollars will trickle into tackling this same issue nationwide. $45 billion dollars from the infrastructure bill is going toward equitable broadband access.

"I think we need to appreciate broadband as a utility. You know, it is not a special thing that only certain people have. It is not something that you earn through wealth. It is something that is a right and a privilege and an opportunity for every American," he said.

Next year, Michelle is entering high school and both her and her mom are relieved to have reliable service because it will help put her on an equal playing field for the rest of her education.

"Everything is technology now. And if you don't have a good internet source, you're not going to be caught up with everything that's happening now. Like you're going to be left in the past," said Michelle.