This is the concluding segment of a two-part interview conducted with Dianne Connery, director of the Pottsboro Area Library (in Texas) and a ShapingEDU colleague who has been a long-time proponent of universal broadband access, particularly for those in the community she serves. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.
Let’s pivot a bit to focus on how successful partnerships that benefit everyone involved are developed. During a recent webinar you did for WebJunction, you talked about a variety of innovative approaches you and your colleagues in Pottsboro have taken in an effort to provide broadband access. Would you mind describing the partnership you created with a local conference center there in Pottsboro?
We work to support local businesses. Being in a tourist destination (Pottsboro is on a large recreational lake—Lake Texoma), our businesses were especially hard hit by the pandemic. Outside of city limits, access is more difficult. We talked to the manager of a resort hotel/conference center about the possibility of using their parking lot as a Wi-Fi hotspot for students. As part of that partnership, we shared our goal of getting media attention about the project. In fact, it has received national attention. When I took photos of the Wi-Fi hotspot, I made sure to take the picture from an angle that showed the resort in the background. This trailer was provided by by ITDRC [Information Technology Disaster Resource Center]. There was no cost to the resort or to the library. It was the library acting as the connector between organizations who could meet the need and the community.
Any stories from Pottsboro residents showing the positive impact that the placement of a Wi-Fi hotspot in town had?
A grandmother who is raising her three grandchildren in nearby apartments used that Wi-Fi for the kids to do their schoolwork. Not only did she not have Internet at home, but she doesn’t have a car. When the schools shut down, being able to walk to that hotspot was the only way the kids could finish out the school year. College students who came back home when their schools shut down used it for accounting homework and test taking. Fortunately, we have a board member who also lives in the nearby apartments who was able to capture some photos and get photo releases. That is part of being strategic with finding funding—being able to put a human face on the issues.
You have, in other conversations we have had, talked about the difference between what standard maps show in terms of broadband coverage and what coverage actually exists. Would you describe what you’ve seen and talk about what we can do to address the disparity between the maps and the actual situation impacting people who need broadband Internet access for work and learning?
One of the difficult national issues is no one has a clear picture of what the real extent of the infrastructure problem is. In short, the FCC maps are created by self-reporting from Internet providers. A provider considers an area covered if one home in a census block could potentially receive service. Self-reporting from providers results in tremendous over-reporting. Some organizations are working towards more accurate maps, but it is very labor intensive. Connected Nation is creating new maps. Their process is sending field engineers to drive every road in the county with equipment that looks for signals. (I’ve spent the morning riding around with two field engineers who were sent here to map coverage in Grayson County through funding provided through Texas Rural Funders.) The engineers take pictures of a variety of towers, power lines, etc. to figure out where actual coverage is. This is an area [where] I would like to see rural libraries take the lead. One of the first steps is to figure out if access is available. After that, we need to know if it is affordable. After that, we need to make sure devices are available. After that, the users have to have the digital literacy to use it. It is a complex problem with no quick fixes.
Drawing upon your extensive experience, what would you suggest individuals can do to support broadband access locally, regionally, and nationally?
Connect people who have an interest in the issue to work together. Who has an interest? Schools, businesses, libraries, realtors, health care providers, non-profits, internetproviders, people who work from home, and families. Sometimes even people in this small town don’t agree on whether or not there is a problem. If they have robust service in their home, they don’t understand that a house down the block might not be able to get a connection. I think gathering all the stakeholders to discuss what the current status is would be a great start.
What have I not asked that you hoped to cover?
The only thing that comes to mind is that speaking to you has brought into focus the importance of storytelling. This is such a dry subject that it is easy for people to glaze over. By telling the stories, I think we have more of a chance of motivating people to work towards solutions. We are developing a coverage map with interactive markers that will tell the story of the person who lives in that location. All of this talk about spectrum, bandwidth, and infrastructure is about real people living their lives and trying to do the best they can.
N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).