AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Nothing has laid bare the importance of high-speed internet more than this pandemic, as so many Americans have been forced to conduct their lives online.
LYNN MANNING JOHN: School started an hour and five minutes ago, and we do not have internet.
CHANG: It's the fourth day of school for Lynn Manning John. She's the vice principal of Owyhee Combined School. That's grades K-12. And even though she is physically back in the building this year, at least for now, internet problems keep fouling up class.
MANNING JOHN: We don't have a way to take attendance. We don't have a way to ensure that students are in the right classes at the right moment. We did have a student exhibiting COVID symptoms this morning, so finding that student's data in order to reach their family is also something we can't do because we don't have internet.
CHANG: We keep hearing from people who are experiencing problems with infrastructure across the country and how the infrastructure bill in Congress plans to address those problems. And today we're going to zoom in on internet connectivity, specifically broadband and how lack of broadband has made life a struggle every day on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in northern Nevada. That's where Lynn Manning John lives.
MANNING JOHN: We are 90 miles in any direction from the nearest interstate. The Duck Valley Indian Reservation is the home to the Shoshone Paiute people. These are our homelands.
CHANG: And get this. Manning John's reservation has only one cell tower, and there's only one hard-wired internet service provider. She says it doesn't even reach her house, and even if it did, it's slow and unreliable.
MANNING JOHN: We want fiber. We want 5G. We want the latest technologies. But we are so isolated, it's challenging to get those companies to come.
CHANG: Tens of millions of people across the country lack the kind of high-speed internet or broadband that they need for things like work, school and streaming, especially in rural and tribal areas. And for Lynn Manning John and her family, sometimes the best solution is to just get out of town. They already have to drive an hour and a half every time just to go grocery shopping. And the perk during some of those trips is that for a brief moment, they can get better internet.
(SOUNDBITE OF TEXT TONE DINGING)
MANNING JOHN: So we're getting to the service area, and the notifications are starting to come in. We got a hotel room for the night. And we will have Wi-Fi, which means that my phone gets to update. I have - I don't think my phone's updated in over a hundred days because we don't have Wi-Fi at home.
CHANG: More people than we realize live like this every day, and I wanted to understand why. Why, in this day and age - why are there still so many parts of the country that don't have reliable and fast internet access?
KATHRYN DE WIT: Well, that - unfortunately, it's not the easiest question to answer.
CHANG: That is Kathryn de Wit, project director for the Broadband Access Initiative at the Pew Charitable Trusts. Lawmakers consulted with her and her team while crafting the infrastructure bill.
DE WIT: It is important to remember that we are talking about a for-profit industry. So when we are looking at communities that are not densely populated, perhaps where income levels are lower, where providers don't see an obvious business case, it is then incumbent upon the public sector to identify opportunities to incentivize investment in those communities.
CHANG: But how do we incentivize investment when we don't even know how many people in this country lack broadband access - like, seriously? The Federal Communications Commission estimates it's 14.5 million people. The White House says, no, it's 30 million. Others say, no, no, no, it's 42 million people. The data is just really spotty, so we don't know exactly how many people need functional broadband right now. How do we expect the federal government to solve this problem?
DE WIT: Well, that is why in the infrastructure act, there are - in the infrastructure bill - excuse me - there is a requirement that the FCC must finish updating the maps before funding may be distributed. That's an important step forward.
CHANG: Well, originally Democrats had said that about $100 billion would be needed to address the country's digital infrastructure. This bill has 65 billion, not quite a hundred billion. How concerned are you that the money in this bill just falls short of what's really needed to bridge the digital divide in this country?
DE WIT: Well, this is a significant down payment on making sure that those households that are definitively unserved - rural and remote households - this is a significant down payment in making sure that they will get online. Those are expensive networks to build, and they do not present an obvious business case to providers. So that's why this public intervention is needed. The other advantage of this bill is its focus on data collection to better understand with a higher level of granularity who else in this country does not have access to a reliable and affordable connection. That's where we...
CHANG: What, in your mind, is still missing from this bill?
DE WIT: Well, the digital divide is really complicated. And so where we would like to see additional support is for state and local leaders to be able to collect the data that they need in order to illustrate just how many unserved households there are in communities that are, quote, unquote, "served" based on federal data.
CHANG: You have described for us that a lot of people just can't get service providers to come out to their area because their area is so remote or there are just too few people in their area to make it profitable to incentivize service providers to flood those areas. Will this bill effectively address that part of the problem?
DE WIT: Yes, it will. Will it solve it? We don't know yet. But will it make a significant dent? Will it make progress? Absolutely.
CHANG: How so?
DE WIT: And not just because of the money that's going to states. There's also $1 billion for middle mile infrastructure, which will help significantly defray the cost of last-mile connections in rural and remote communities.
CHANG: Last-mile connections, meaning those final legs that connect a person to the internet. On so many days of her life, Lynn Manning John feels like Duck Valley Indian Reservation is not only on that last mile; it's the very last stop on that mile. Yet she has chosen to stay here.
MANNING JOHN: Our ancestors put us in the right spot so that when everything shuts down, we still have our beautiful land and everything we need to survive.
CHANG: But she acknowledges surviving in the modern age, especially during a pandemic, is almost impossible on this reservation without high-speed internet.
MANNING JOHN: Our isolation historically has allowed us to preserve our language and culture and traditions, and that's served us. However, it doesn't serve us in the age of the internet, when we need up-to-the-date, up-to-the-minute information, we need to be able to push out information and instruction. We really need something in communities like mine, and my reservation is not the only community that has this problem. There are others across the United States, and we have probably one of the most challenging experiences in accessing broadband day in and day out.
(SOUNDBITE OF THIEVERY CORPORATION SONG, "AMERIMACKA")
CHANG: Tomorrow our series on infrastructure continues. We'll take a look at the nation's power grid and what it needs to keep running during extreme weather events increasingly fueled by climate change. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.