top of page

Endless buffering: Local schools try to solve students’ internet access issues on their own

By Colin Deppen, The Incline; Jeff Stitt, Mon Valley Independent; and Jamie Wiggan, McKees Rocks Gazette 2.0

TyLisa C. Johnson of PublicSource, Jordan Woman of the Brown and White at Lehigh University, and Zoey Angelucci and Logan Garvey, both of Point Park University, contributed reporting to this project.

This story was produced as part of a collaborative reporting project by the Pittsburgh Media Partnership. Learn more about our partners in the collaborative and sign up for the partnership’s newsletter to get weekly summaries of the region’s most important stories.

Photo by Nate Smallwood

Michael Amick, Sto-Rox curriculum director, was able to secure 500 devices by cold calling Staples.

Carla Rathway could hear her youngest son's frustration from the other room. She knew the clamor meant the internet was acting up again and keeping 12-year-old Preston from his school work. It happened all the time.

"He's like, 'Oh my gosh,' when it's buffering or locking him out,” Rathway said, adding she also overhears him saying, "'I hate this internet.'"

Like scores of Pennsylvania students, Preston, a seventh grader at Belle Vernon Area School District in Westmoreland County, and his brother, 15-year-old tenth-grader Dylan, were in their second month of online learning this October. But the brothers were doing it all without a reliable high-speed internet connection at home, where they live across the county line in Fayette County.

In place of one, Preston and Dylan relied on an ad hoc network of erratic mobile hotspots and visits to relatives in order to complete their assignments.

Makeshift solutions, like these, exist all around them.

Elsewhere in Fayette County, public school students are going to emergency facilities such as firehouses and churches to access the internet. And several districts are experimenting with broadcasting classes on TV at an appointed time -- instead of having students log online.

In neighboring Washington County, one school sent out vans with mobile hotspots meant to help extend the area’s Wi-Fi connections. Farther north, districts in Beaver and Butler counties put access points on school buildings so that families can park in the school lots to use the internet. And across the region, small businesses are opening up their internet access to students.

Internet service providers such as Comcast — one of the largest home providers in the country — say their coverage areas are constantly and naturally expanding. But experts point to the literal race underway to equip young learners in Pennsylvania and say that none of this is happening or working quickly enough.

In 2013, Pennsylvania awarded millions of dollars in tax credits to private companies to improve broadband internet in rural areas — without requiring them to actually invest there. Last fall, the state legislature created a new program meant to replace it, offering similar incentives to the telecom industry. Advocates are skeptical that it’ll close the divide between those who have high-speed internet access and those who don’t.

Closer to Pittsburgh, where internet service providers have made coverage more reliable but not always affordable, students are taking advantage of the providers’ assistance programs, relying on deeply discounted access to the resource that, as the pandemic rages on, connects them to their classmates and teachers.

Similar or identical stories can be found in rural and urban districts across the commonwealth.

While the underlying access gaps aren't new, this pandemic might prove to be a tipping point in how we view the service: privilege vs. utility.

Until then, solutions remain piecemeal and almost wholly reliant on private sector whims or the triage efforts of startups and nonprofits.

"Everybody says we'll look into it,” Dylan’s dad, Brian, said about their bids for assistance. “That's what everybody says.”

A desperate rush as schools spend millions for quick fix

When Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all Pennsylvania schools closed for in-person learning in March, districts pivoted quickly to online-only models with varying degrees of success and crisis-measured expectations. The governor’s order was extended for the duration of the 2019-2020 school year in April, but reopening plans for the following school year — the one we’re in now — were largely left up to local officials. Some chose a wait-and-see approach.

When the summer brought no miracles — no vaccine, no real reduction in new COVID-19 cases — those districts joined others nationwide in scrambling to secure the technology students needed for a post-summer continuation of online learning.

This included devices, like tablets and laptops, needed to use online learning tools. It also meant technology that brings the internet into the home, namely portable beacons called hotspots that rely on cellular networks, which are used by those who aren’t served by commercial internet providers. For those who were, the districts sought ways to offer a discounted service.

Many of the 157 public schools in the seven-county region that makes up the Pittsburgh metropolitan area were able to cover the costs of these devices from their operating budgets or with federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act money, according to a phone survey conducted late this fall by the members of the Pittsburgh Media Partnership -- despite issues related to the equity in the disbursement of that aid. But even for those who knew the check was in the mail, cash flow became its own crisis.

For example, Pennsylvania received $104 million from the federal government to expand internet access for K-12 and college students, but two-thirds of that pot still hadn't been distributed by the state as of August, with just weeks left before the start of the school year. The Pennsylvania Department of Education has since said the entire pot has been allocated, with some contracts still being finalized.

Faced with those delays and with a second round of federal relief funding a distant prospect at best, school administrators said they needed all the help they could get.

Districts like Pittsburgh Public Schools, Pennsylvania's second-largest district, held a community fundraiser to help bankroll purchases of online learning tools and families’ monthly fees for internet service.

Nonprofits such as the Jerome Bettis the Bus Stops Here Foundation and Best of the Batch Foundation stepped in to help other districts. Private companies also made donations. U.S. Steel, for one, donated $25,000 each to the McKeesport Area School District and Clairton City School District, and undisclosed amounts in South Allegheny and Woodland Hills, a spokesperson confirmed.

The rush to secure funding overlapped with a rush to spend it, and the sudden run on electronics that followed caused a nationwide shortage, the same blamed for contributing to early distribution delays here and across the country.

Desperate school officials unable to get the tech they needed through their vetted suppliers cold-called big box retailers, like Staples and Best Buy, to comb through their inventory.

“We were really stressed about three weeks before school started,” said Michael Amick, the curriculum director for The Sto-Rox School District in McKees Rocks, a borough on the western end of Allegheny County, just outside of Pittsburgh. “We just lucked out because Staples had an order of 500 devices canceled — we were able to get them just in time.”

More than half of Sto-Rox’s 1,432 students didn’t have a computer at home at the start of the pandemic. Seventeen-year-old Arielle Murrell of McKees Rocks, a twelfth grader in the district, relied on her phone to complete assignments on websites not at all designed for that. Sixteen-year-old Tam’Bryah Burrell, a Sto-Rox tenth grader also in McKees Rocks, shared a laptop with her aunt during the initial pivot to online learning in March.

Sakinah Shaahid – who, through her work for education non-profit Communities in Schools, checks in almost daily with Arielle, Tam’Bryah and about 50 other students at Sto-Rox and neighboring districts – said many students without adequate technology missed out on a vital chunk of their education between March and September.

“When the district made it so that every child passed, you saw a lot of students who probably didn’t have access to technology, they just didn’t do any work because they were passing anyway,” she said.

Amick said that after that rocky spring, the district was able to make sure every student and teacher had access to a Chromebook when the school reopened in the fall. That is no small feat in a district where one-quarter of families live below the poverty line and where budgets are so tight the school once famously ran out of paper.

“This really changes everything for us,” Amick said, at the time. “Now I feel like our students can compete, they can connect with the broader innovation in the region.”

In nearby Coraopolis, a 15-minute drive from the Sto-Rox School District, the Cornell School District, where 99.5 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunches, also found a way to deliver devices to all of its 675 K-12 students.

But the school officials found that getting the hardware distributed was just the beginning of a solution to the challenges they faced with the move to online classrooms.

“We had plenty of devices," Cornell Superintendent Aaron Thomas explained. "The biggest obstacle was the families that didn’t have the internet."

Frustrated families at mercy of industry

A March survey of Cornell School District families found about 10 percent of its families had no internet connection at home. More reported connections that simply weren't reliable enough for the demands of online learning.

Photo courtesy of Tam’Bryah Burrell

Tam’Bryah Burrell, a Sto-Rox tenth grader who lives in McKees Rocks, shared a laptop with her aunt during the initial pivot to online learning in March.

At Sto-Rox, it was roughly the same, school officials estimated. Tam’Bryah now has a district-issued device but sometimes she still toggles between it and her aunt’s laptop.

“It’s very challenging," Tam’Bryah said of the impact on her school work, adding that teachers have also struggled as instructors-turned-IT support. “Some of them just send emails saying do this or do that (to fix a tech issue), but that don’t help.”

Fifty minutes south, in Washington Township in Fayette County, Robinette Vitez’s son, Dalton, watches the weather to see if his connection, through HughesNet’s satellite service, is likely to work.

"I can tell you if it's clear out, he can get online," Vitez said. "If there is a cloud in the sky, he gets bumped off."

Vitez said Dalton typically gets good grades but was falling behind this year. He's having the biggest issue in Spanish class, she said. Videos and digital feeds for the class constantly lag or freeze when Dalton is talking to his teacher or classmates. He also has trouble hearing what everyone else is saying.

"I've actually reached out to the school and talked with the guidance counselor trying to figure out what we can do because, I mean, that's out of his control," Vitez said. "I'm not going to accept an F or D from an A-B student. That's just not acceptable to me. It's not the kid's fault."

According to an April 2020 U.S. Census Bureau survey, some 3.7 million U.S. households have had internet available sometimes, rarely, or never for online learning in this pandemic — with rural students, students from lower-income families, and students of color disproportionately affected.

For those who technically have access to what the Federal Communications Commission refers to as “broadband” internet (access that is “always on” and faster than a dial-up connection), there is significant disparity in the quality of the connections based on where you live and its market appeal to the (mostly) for-profit companies who lay the nation’s infrastructure for internet services.

Physical cables connected to houses -- telephone, cable or fiber optic lines -- provide more reliable coverage than wireless broadband technologies that rely on radio or cellular signals bouncing off physical towers nearby. But even the physical connections vary in how fast they can connect you: Cable lines are better than telephone line connections, and fiber optic cables, built specifically to deliver high-speed internet, are the fastest.

Tam’Bryah and her aunt, in the denser, more urban environment of Allegheny County, have options --- depending on what they’re willing to pay. Costs to connect a high-speed internet connection, when available, can range from about $40 per month to more than $70 per month.

After distributing hardware, most districts are relying on internet service providers’ assistance programs to help families struggling with the ongoing expense of the internet connection, according to the Pittsburgh Media Partnership’s survey.

A few were able to help pay for the expense directly. After Pittsburgh Public Schools, for example, found that more than 1,500 of the district's 23,000 students — roughly 6.5 percent — lacked internet access, it distributed access codes for Comcast’s most basic home WI-FI service, which were purchased with a local nonprofit's $100,000 donation.

The urban environment surrounding most PPS students also provide options for free Wi-Fi access, too, through libraries within walking distance, and neighbors and businesses who share their access.

"I think that most of the kids are pretty good with connectivity,” said Sean Means, a teacher at Pittsburgh Westinghouse Academy 6-12.

They seem to be, he said, “in a much better place than we were at any point in the history as far as being able to get online.”

But students in the region’s more rural areas are being stranded on the berm of the information superhighway and struggling to keep up.

In Fayette County, the Vitezes’ and their classmates, Preston and Dylan Rathway, are two of the roughly 30 Belle Vernon School District families without high-speed internet access at home, school officials report. The resulting tech hurdles — dropped remote learning calls, out-of-sync audio, endless buffering — were so bad that Preston demanded to go back to in-person classes, his mother, Carla said, which he did two days a week. But the district's COVID-19 test positivity rate soon tripled, eventually reaching 47 percent, and he was soon back at home.

They are tantalizingly close to better internet access.

"If you climb that hill behind our house," Brian Rathway said, pointing to a grassy knoll, "and back down the other side, they have Atlantic Broadband."

But extending that line requires building new infrastructure, and that can carry a shocking price tag.

"The estimate came back for me that I was going to have to pay $90,000 for them to run the line so I can have high-speed internet," relative and nearby neighbor Larissa Rathway explained, even with households a quarter-mile away already tapped in.

Another family was given a $30,000 quote, Washington Township Supervisor Jan Amoroso said.

“Until this (pandemic) happened, people just kind of sucked it up,” Amoroso said. “But as time goes on, everything has become internet based, and right now, everything is online.”

High-speed questions: is it a utility or a privilege?

If there is a silver lining to this educational crisis, it’s that forced acknowledgement that the internet is no longer a luxury — particularly for American students.

“It’s like that time-travel book [by H.G. Wells],” says Adam Longwill of Meta Mesh Wireless Communities, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that uses novel means to fill internet service gaps here. “There's the above-ground people and the underground people. And they are the same, like, they evolved from the same humans. But they're just totally and completely incompatible with each other.”

The metaphor continued: “We are creating a society of the connected and the disconnected that are going to be so far apart if we continue to let this happen, I don't know how we'll ever get back together.”

Gov. Tom Wolf, in an attempt to address this digital divide, signed into law in November the Unserved High-Speed Broadband Funding Program Act.

State Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., a Cambria County Republican and primary sponsor of the bill, said the legislation was first conceived in 2017 and regained its momentum this summer after a lengthy stay in committee.

The act created a $5 million grant program to incentivize private-sector companies to add high-speed internet in places where sparse populations and lower rates of return have always been a disincentive.

For the purposes of the grant program, the law also updates the definition of which areas of the commonwealth are being served by high-speed internet. The law uses the FCC’s minimums, rather than the ones set by Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Code, which relies on decades-old metrics and which is at least part of the reason why families from the Belle Vernon School District in Westmoreland County to the Sto-Rox School District in Allegheny County struggle to stay connected.

The FCC's higher watermark sets basic service at 3 to 8 megabits per second (mbps) for both downloads and uploads and high-speed service at more than 25 mbps. To put that in context, an average-sized cellphone photo would take about 8 seconds to download at 3 mbps and exponentially less time from there. Those speeds are less adequate when considering the more demanding activities required for online learning, especially when a household has more than one device running at a time. By the FCC's own standard, basic service is just barely good enough for the rigors of video conferences and calls.

But while the new grant program corrects for the commonwealth’s low standard, advocates are skeptical it will make a difference. Most underserved areas of the state won’t be eligible for the support promised because they will be officially labeled as “served" when in fact they are not, said Sascha Meinrath, a Penn State professor in telecommunications who led a recent study testing broadband speeds access.