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Six lessons for covering broadband access as the deeply human story it is

Six lessons for covering broadband access as the deeply human story it is

Picture of Nina Shapiro
Marshel Sumerlin, left, and his son, Lee, at their home in Ferry County, Washington. The family, whose story was featured in the
Marshel Sumerlin, left, and his son, Lee, at their home in Ferry County, Washington. The family, whose story was featured in the author’s reporting, have satellite dishes that Sumerlin has used to try to get internet service.
(Photo by Amanda Snyder/The Seattle Times)

I am not a technical person. In college, I focused on political philosophy. As a reporter, I gravitate toward stories with an emotional center. If I’m not moved, I’m not interested.

So it’s somewhat ironic that I ended up spending months looking into the lack of broadband in tribal and rural areas of Washington state. 

The thing is, I was moved when a conversation with a tribal chairman sparked the idea. We were deep into the COVID-19 pandemic. Vaccines were not yet widely available. I was working remotely, grocery shopping online and spending a lot of my off-hours streaming movies and TV shows. 

A very different reality was happening for people on the reservation that the chairman oversaw, where the vast majority lacked internet service. They had been shut out of the virtual world, which in many ways had become the world during the pandemic. It seemed almost unimaginable at the time, and I wanted to show what that felt like and how it impacted people’s lives. 

A lot changed in the following months, as I participated in the National Fellowship program. As people got vaccinated, they stated going back to school and work. And yet, I learned from the reporting I was doing that this was still an important story to tell. Something in society had shifted, and people continued to be left behind.

This story was being told in broad strokes, but not so much in detail, or capturing the breadth of the problem. 

Lesson one for people covering broadband access: It’s a bigger problem than you think. Look in unexpected places. I found that even people a few miles away from cities — including Washington’s two largest, Seattle and Spokane — either couldn’t get broadband or had service so slow and unreliable as to be unusable for current needs, like Zoom meetings and video streaming. 

Lesson two: The same kind of poignant stories offered by social issues — my beat — can be found reporting on the digital divide. I interviewed a young mother on the Colville Reservation trying to better her life and be an example for her daughter by getting a college degree. She dropped out of her program in part because she didn’t have internet service at home and driving to the community center late at night to use its Wi-Fi wasn’t working. I talked to an 81-year-old on the same reservation who was so frustrated by his terrible internet and cell phone service that he planned to drive 100 miles to make a doctor’s appointment in person. 

Closer to Seattle, I watched a woman sit in her car as it got dark so she could connect to a library’s Wi-Fi, periodically distracted by the lights and revving engines of cars in the parking lot. And, near Spokane, the mother of a 4-year-old with learning disabilities told me how he would cry all day after getting disconnected from his preschool’s virtual circle time. He thought his friends were ignoring him and his teacher didn’t like him. 

Lesson three: There’s a history here. The pandemic brought a flood of money for expanding broadband access, most notably through the massive infrastructure bill. But the feds have already spent billions of dollars on this. You can find a list of Obama-era recipients in your state here, and Trump-era recipients here.

The feds allocated money using a flawed system reliant on inaccurate FCC maps, and failing, as many people see it, to hold companies accountable that don’t deliver on their promises. State and county officials are great sources for finding out about instances of lack of accountability in your area. They’re often furious. 

Find your state in the FCC maps showing where broadband access supposedly exists. Then, ask local officials if that matches reality. If your state has a broadband office, they may have done a survey asking residents to do an internet service speed test, which shows if their service is fast enough to be considered broadband. Washington has an ongoing survey and is putting the results online. 

An example of the discrepancy: The FCC says 100% of Washington has access to broadband. Our state survey has found that 46% of respondents, as of December 2021, had no internet service or service at less than half the speed that the FCC considers broadband, even using its antiquated standard. Which brings me to my next takeaway.

Lesson four: You’re going to have to get technical. I didn’t realize it at first, but there was no getting around it. Spend some time with a broadband official in your state and learn the significance of download speeds. Otherwise, you won’t understand why so much of the service out there is inadequate, and the vast disparity that exists among your state’s residents. Take a speed test from your computer so you have a point of reference. It’s fascinating once you get into it. 

Likewise, get an understanding of why the type of technology matters. Many people in your area may have old copper-wire technology or satellites that involve delays while data travels to them and back to the home. If so, their internet service is likely a lot slower than people who have service using fiber optic cable. 

Lesson five: By the time we published our package, there were no definitive numbers on how many people have broadband. But there are resources that can inform your reporting. The FCC is coming out with new maps in 2022. The American Community Survey  asks people whether they have internet service. Microsoft does its own tracking. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has a broadband mapping project that incorporates an array of sources. School administrators in your area may have their own figures.

Lesson six: Don’t show all that you’ve learned. The trick is writing about this technology with a light touch, focusing on human stories. Good luck!

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