Sandra Starling was stunned to see a boy sitting with a laptop on a sidewalk outside a fast-food restaurant along U.S. Route 301 in Starke.
“It just really hit me that life is not as easy for everybody right now as it is for me,” said Starling, 68, a second grade teacher at Starke Elementary, which like all schools across the state remains closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Starling stopped her car to talk with the boy. She didn’t catch his name or age, but shared his story in a recent Facebook post that’s been shared more than 18,500 times.
“He told me his dad works in Jax. Doing concrete work,” Starling’s post stated, with a reference to Jacksonville. “His company has threatened to shut down so having internet at home is not a priority right now. I told him I understand – but do I really get it? This young man is trying, but life is hard right now.”
As most Americans are working and learning from home during the pandemic, the need for high-speed internet has increased dramatically. That has resulted in slower connectivity speeds and financial implications while millions are unemployed, especially for families that are low-income or living in rural areas, according to The Washington Post.
Kristen Bazzell, a project manager for On Ideas, Inc. in Jacksonville, said that she and her two children have had very slow internet, especially in their first three weeks of staying at home. That has made working from home more difficult, said Bazzell, 40.
Bazzell said even though Comcast has increased its speed package without an added charge, the slow network connection still affected her ability to upload files, send emails and log into Zoom meetings for the first few weeks she was at home.
“I’m definitely more stressed,” Bazzell said. “There’s definitely more anxiety in the house.”
Bazzell said that she and other coworkers hadn’t been able to send emails for a week or so again. It turned out she had 15 drafts in her folder waiting to be sent, she said.
Meanwhile, she said, the first two weeks in isolation were horrible for her children. One is in middle school and the other in high school, and neither could upload school assignments for their teachers to grade, Bazzell said. She also said the teachers were having difficulty figuring out how to upload assignments, which has made things more stressful for her teenagers.
“The online platform and learning environment isn’t for everyone,” she said. “I feel bad for the kids. I don’t know how much they’re actually learning and absorbing.”
The lack of internet access has presented challenges for college students as well.
Natalia Rovira, 20, an ecosystem science and policy sophomore at the University of Miami, said her family lives in a “black hole” for the internet, in an unincorporated part of the city.
Rovira said her computer crashed every 10 minutes while home on spring break. Her parents’ computers crashed, too, which caused their work conference calls to drop. The family has purchased a new router, extension and modem, but Rovira said while it has helped improve their internet, she still for a time experienced issues with staying on Zoom for her class lectures.
“It was a solid week of me feeling like I was going to lose it,” she said.
Rovira said the situation has brought her family closer and has allowed them to spend quality time together.
“I know that having WiFi problems are like problems of privilege,” she said. “I’d much rather have problems with this than anything else people have been dealing with.”
Colleen Davoli, 26, an archivist, house manager and publicist for the University of Florida’s School of Theatre and Dance, said she was also having problems accessing the internet. Davoli said a slow connection kept her from getting on Zoom with faculty and completing other work on time.
Davoli is living with her parents in a rural area of Port Charlotte, about 35 minutes from Fort Myers. She said their new home is in a developing neighborhood, so the family didn’t have much service to begin with. Basically, only one bar of cell phone service.
“It was almost impossible for me to do anything online,” she said. “It was frustrating to say the least.”
Casey Henshaw, director of events at Sweetwater Branch Inn in Gainesville, hasn’t experienced many internet issues at home because she doesn’t use it. Before COVID-19, Henshaw, 25, went to coffee shops like Karma Cream or Coffee Culture or to her workplace to access WiFi.
Henshaw said she never felt like she needed to pay for internet service at home because she doesn’t watch television or Netflix or use any other streaming service. Now she uses personal hotspots from her cell phone to answer emails and accomplish any other tasks for work.
“I know it’s a weird situation for somebody to not have internet,” Henshaw said. “Everybody looks at me like I have three heads.”
CenturyLink used to be Starke’s sole internet provider, but in 2018, business leaders and residents persuaded other companies to offer high-speed service in Bradford County. That did not include, however, places beyond county limits or otherwise known as the “last mile.”
“Is it perfect? Is it where we want to be?” asked Pam Whittle, president and CEO of the North Florida Regional Chamber of Commerce. “No, but it is better than it was, especially for our business community.”
Whittle said she believes internet providers worry about the return on investment if they were to offer better connectivity for those who don’t have reliable service.
“We had a lot of people that said, ‘Oh, yeah, we can come,’ and then when the rubber met the road, they couldn’t come,” she said. “They wouldn’t come.”
Despite hers and other businesses in Starke suffering greatly because of COVID-19, Nicole Dixon, 39, has been offering her family restaurant, Our House, as a free WiFi spot for anyone who needs it. Dixon remembers when she didn’t have internet while growing up in Ohio.
“We didn’t have a whole lot, and so I know the struggles of not having it,” she said. “Now I have it, so why can’t I pay it forward, and give back to the community that’s keeping us in business?”
Dixon said Comcast has had reliable connectivity as the provider for Our House. However, the service isn’t offered where she lives near Bradford County Jail, so Dixon has CenturyLink for her home, and it has sometimes been spotty.
“Technology has become a vital piece of being able to live in everyday life, and without that, you basically cut yourself off at the knees,” she said.