Editors' Notebook

Weak Rural Internet Makes Rural Life Interesting

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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Kyle Quinn, 15, plays his tuba from a high spot on the Quinn farm in order to get a strong enough mobile phone signal to send his performance to his band teacher. Brother Burke, 10, holds the music and sister Ella, 8, listens. (DTN photo by Russ Quinn.)


When DTN Staff Reporter Russ Quinn volunteered to take on a story about the challenges rural children face learning from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, their troubles sounded very familiar. In the following blog, he shares his family's experiences.


The recent article I wrote about children doing schoolwork from home during the COVID-19 pandemic (https://www.dtnpf.com/…) discusses how farm families have had to adjust to those changes while dealing with slow internet connections.

It's an issue I know personally. I live about 35 miles northwest of the DTN offices in Omaha, and even though it is a well-populated area, we have no access to broadband internet. We use a hot spot device from our cell phone provider.

If you have ever used this type of service, you probably know some days you can have great access to the internet while other days, well, not so much. Windy days are the worst [Editor's note: This is Nebraska, after all] and while phone companies say that shouldn't matter, I envision those tall towers moving slightly in the wind, making an inconsistent signal.

The hot spot was satisfactory for years during those rare times I had to work from home because of wintery weather or if one of the kids was sick. Our kids also used it once in a while to do some of their homework online. I say some because if we used it too much in a month, we hit our data cap and overage fees were applied to our account.

On top of this, our farmhouse is in a valley, not good for getting a decent cell phone signal. I understand why pioneers who came to the area 150 years ago built houses in low spots to get out of the wind. I just wish whoever homesteaded our farm would have built the place a little up the hill some.

March 16 was the first day my three kids (Kyle, a freshman in high school; Burke, a 5th grader; and Ella, a 3rd grader) began their home-schooling adventure. My wife, Tracie, is a para-educator at the kids' school so she had to go to the school once in a while in the last couple of months, but the majority of time she was home with the kids.

Knowing how spotty our internet was, I made the decision I would continue to work from the office, while other reporters and editors are working remotely, and let the kids have the internet at home to do their schoolwork. I really didn't think the hot spot could support me and the kids all working -- sometimes it isn't enough for me alone.

For the younger two kids, most schoolwork was still on paper. That needed to just be picked up, completed, and returned to the school. Once in a while they had to watch a video online or attend a Zoom meeting. The freshman, however, was doing all of his work online.

And this is when our rural internet issues began.

After the first couple of weeks of online school, we started to get phone calls from the assistant principal saying our oldest was missing quite a few assignments. Kyle swore he was doing the work, but the gradebook didn't agree.

We quickly learned that on days the hot spot had a weaker signal, his assignments were not making it to Google Classroom or into the Docs. To solve that, he had to go to the top of a hill where the signal was stronger when sending in assignments just to make sure they were getting there.

There were MANY trips to the hilltop during the last two months.

Kyle, who plays the tuba in the school band, had to record audio files playing his part of various songs and send them to his band teacher. He would get into the pickup, drive to the top of the hill in our field behind our house, record the audio from the tailgate and send in the files.

Burke and Ella had similar trouble sending in videos of how they were learning from home to their teachers. Tracie tried to send them from the hill and the files were too large for the signal she could get. She ended up putting the videos into phone texts and then texting the videos to the teacher's cell phones, which finally did work.

As my family was dealing with all this, I was hearing some of the same issues as I interviewed farmers for my article. One farmer told me her daughter lost many assignments she thought she turned in because of a weak internet signal. Another farmer said he had to drive his fifth-grade son to the top of the hill every time they had a Zoom meeting. They, too, live in a valley and they didn't have enough internet signal to run the video feature of Zoom meetings.

After the first few weeks, we did find much better footing with our home learning.

Our 9th grader learned to send his teachers emails at the end of every week to make sure all assignments were accounted for. My wife and kids would usually go to my mother-in-law's house, who lives in a nearby town with decent internet, once a week in an effort to do some schoolwork there.

The school year wrapped up on May 21, so we all look forward to summer and hopefully two things:

The first would be that our kids can return to their school buildings this fall.

The second would be that the fiber optic wire buried last year in the roadside ditch would make it the rest of the way to our place so we, too, can have broadband internet.

Hopefully both can occur sooner than later.

Russ Quinn can be reached at russ.quinn@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @RussQuinnDTN


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