It’s 2020, And Rolling Hills Residents Can’t Get Wi-Fi

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Alison Skees says she loses sleep because she doesn’t trust her Wi-Fi to monitor her diabetic son’s blood sugar.

Her 11-year-old son, Brody, uses a Dexcom — a  continuous glucose monitor that relies on internet connection to relay information to smart device apps. But Skees, 37, is met with a buffering page throughout the day. She said she pricks her son’s finger every two hours at night because she’s heard stories about people with diabetes who have died in their sleep. She said she loves the Dexcom, but she can’t rely on it.

“I call it my little helper,” Skees said. “But when the internet is not working, and the data is not working, it’s useless.” 

She can’t trust her AT&T Wi-Fi, but it is the best connection she can get. She, like most of Rolling Hills residents near Dunnellon can’t get a stable Wi-Fi connection.

A map shows Rolling Hills residents’ limited broadband options just outside Dunnellon. (Map courtesy of BroadbandNow.com)

The Federal Communications Commission’s household broadband guidelines say that speeds of 3-to-8 megabits per second, or Mbps, are needed for light use of essential functions, such as emailing and browsing, for one device. Skees said her internet speed test showed she could barely get 2 Mbps for downloads in her house. 

Rolling Hills residents are limited in options for broadband service providers. (Graphic by Melissa Hernandez De La Cruz/WUFT News)

On Oct. 1, AT&T stopped offering its digital service lines, or DSL, broadband “AT&T internet” to new customers. Kelly Starling, AT&T lead public relations manager, said existing DSL customers are still able to continue their service and will eventually have the ability to upgrade to faster services.

“We continue to make substantial investments in wireless capabilities and fiber to reach more customers with faster speeds. Thats why as of Oct. 1, were not accepting new orders for DSL services of 6 Mbps and slower,” Starling said.

Andrew Arevalo, who owns an antenna and satellite sales business, said he receives daily complaints from his customers about internet speed. Arevalo, 50,  said whenever he sells HughesNet, which is $70 a month for the basic package, he always warns customers that they cannot stream. 

“People’s number one complaint is ‘it’s too slow’ and ‘I can’t watch my Netflix,’” he said. 

Arevalo said the problem is with the service providers not wanting to invest the money in rural areas. In August 2017, Comcast shut down their cable system in Williston because it was no longer profitable. AT&T, like Comcast, didn’t want to invest the money in Dunnellon to fix the plant and put better service in the city, according to Arevalo. He said the only real solution would involve a national bill providing grants to companies allowing them to run fiber-optic lines in rural areas.

Mindy Kramer, vice president of public relations for Comcast’s Florida region, said the company provided limited video options to the Williston area due to an outdated system.

“Because of the substantial limitations of the old equipment, Comcast was not able to offer these customers any options for our more technologically advanced products and services such as Internet, Voice and Xfinity Home and our flagship X1 product,” Kramer said in an Oct. 16 email.

For the Dunnellon area, Kramer said that Comcast offers high speed Xfinity service with up to 150 mbps, capable of handling remote work and streaming. Kramer added that Comcast has a fiber network that serves business and residential customers. But only 5% of Dunnellon residents have availability for fiber-optic internet.

Danielle Casey, 41, said she doesn’t pay for an internet service provider. Instead, she said she entirely relies on a mobile hot spot to manage her golf cart repair business. Casey, an admin on the Rolling Hills neighborhood Facebook page, said she was forced to send her kids to in-person classes because the Wi-Fi won’t sustain distanced learning for both her daughter and son. She said she pays for Netflix, but she can’t watch it. Her Verizon cell phone bill runs $600 a month due to her use of hot spots.

“When our cell phone service and data go down, I’m flying blind,” Casey said.

Casey, who lives about 10 minutes from Dunnellon, said the Rolling Hills neighborhood receives a good signal from Spectrum, one of the few internet service provider options, but it only runs to the northern and southern ends of the community. The residents in between, like Casey, are left in the dark. 

She said she paid for AT&T internet at her last house until she moved to another section of the neighborhood, where she was told there couldn’t be a transfer of service. Casey said she and other neighbors had reported the internet availability issues to the Federal Communications Commission, otherwise known as FCC.

FCC data shows 26 complaints about internet availability in Dunnellon filed since Aug. 27, 2015.

“It’s not economical for them to update or run more lines,” Casey said. “So we’re all stuck, and that’s the biggest reason people want to leave.”

Shannon Eason, 45, who now lives in Citrus Springs said she moved away from Rolling Hills six years ago. She said she was lucky because she lived near State Road 40 and had fewer internet issues. Her 13-year-old son also uses a Dexcom to update on his blood sugar levels. Eason said the monitor works pretty effectively, even though Eason and Skees both have AT&T. However, she said she feels the neighborhood’s frustrations. 

“It’s frustrating in and of itself to know you have the technology available to you that you cannot use it properly because the neighborhood doesn’t have the capabilities,” Eason said.

Before COVID-19, Skees’ son Brody attended a private school in Ocala, but because his Type 1 diabetes classifies him as an at-risk person, the 11-year-old had to move to distanced learning once the pandemic arrived.  Skees said her son tried distanced learning for a month. She ended up buying a $1,000 homeschooling DVD program because Brody’s teachers were always cutting out. She said she’d spent over $1,500 between one month of private school fees and the DVD program. 

Skees’ 15-year-old daughter was directly exposed to COVID-19 at Dunnellon High School and forced to do online classes during her 2-week quarantine. Skees said her daughter could not do her online work because of the internet.

“So now she has a ton of zeroes from the days that she was out because she couldn’t get on,” Skees said. “Now she’s got like three F’s.”

Kevin Christian, director of public relations for Marion County Public Schools, said he is not aware of any case where unreliable internet issues impacted students’ grades.

Christian said that Marion County schools also offer K-12 paper-based assignment packages for students who cannot do distanced learning. He encouraged students and families to reach out to schools and inform them of the lack of internet service before assignments are due because the schools provide plenty of other options and work-arounds.

“You can’t wait until the race is over to say ‘Hey, I’m having issues,'” Christian said. “You’ve got to speak up, and you’ve got to reach out.”

Casey said she remembers seeing a post from a new neighbor on the Dunnellon word of mouth Facebook page about internet providers. She said the new resident, who works remotely, had specifically asked the realtor about having reliable internet but ended up in the same boat as Casey: no stable internet. 

“It feels like we’re in the dark ages,” Casey said.

About Melissa Hernandez De La Cruz

Melissa is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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