During the pandemic, one of Mcdonald’s most popular items wasn’t on the menu. It was in the parking lot. School children, driven to online classrooms by a virus, were now being driven to the fast-food giant in search of the wi-fi required to complete their lessons.

Others traveled across the county to grandparents’ homes every time assignments were due.

One young girl could only access the internet on her mother’s phone; however, the websites she needed to visit weren’t accessible on mobile devices, leaving teachers searching for alternatives to get her the information she needed.

Families with broadband access found it worked well for one student, but it began to fail when more kids tried jumping on to complete schoolwork. Parents working remotely only exacerbated the problem. Those without access fell further behind academically, widening educational gaps in the county that only now are beginning to close.

Anne Gideon, a teacher at Divine Mercy Catholic School in Payne, experienced these challenges firsthand. “I had one mother, whose oldest was in fourth grade, who said, ‘I hadn’t thought we needed to get it just yet. I thought I’d wait until she got to high school.’ Then, when the pandemic hit, she tried to find it [broadband], and she was in the same boat we were in.” According to Gideon, the family lived just south of Paulding on US 127, and they still struggled to get reliable coverage.

Divine Mercy tried to accommodate students’ needs as much as possible during the shutdown. For example, teachers maintained office hours where students could log on and get questions answered. In order to prevent multiple siblings from having to log on at the same time, the school staggered the times by grade band. “We’re a small enough school we could do that,” said Gideon. “But the public schools, there’s no way they could manage.”

“I don’t really assign anything at home, on the computer, if I can help it. Because you don’t know if they have a computer at home; plus, some of them aren’t at an age where they know how to get onto Google classroom at home.”

Divine Mercy’s school day ends at 3:25 p.m. but it’s rare that Gideon leaves before 5 p.m. She tries to get everything she needs to get done on the computer done at the school, so she doesn’t fight the internet at home. “Because when I do, it’s literally like, ‘Okay I need to go to page 247.’ I click that up in the classroom, and it just loads . . . and loads . . . and loads . . . and loads. And then finally it’s done.”

Larger schools in the county faced similar challenges during the pandemic.

“We had a survey of our parents asking them do you have internet?” said Antwerp Local Schools superintendent Dr. Martin Miller. “Very few people responded back that they didn’t.”

However, as the pandemic progressed and students were learning at home, the district discovered that as many as 30-40% of families lacked adequate internet necessary for multiple kids to work on lessons at the same time.

One service provider proved particularly problematic in the district.

“The parents who had Frontier as their provider had real challenges,” said Miller. “They would have to have kids take turns, or they would have to use their parents’ phone for internet access to do their schoolwork.”

Internal invester documents might explain why families struggled so much with Frontier’s service. Just months before the pandemic, Frontier filed for bankruptcy protection. Among the reasons the company cited was a failure to adequately understand the demand for fiber-based broadband, which left the company with millions of customers served by legacy copper DSL.

In the end, Antwerp worked with Verizon, the district’s phone service provider, to purchase mobile hotspots for families to use. In total, forty-three hotspots were given out to families. In nearly every case, the families had three or four kids that couldn’t get on at the same time.

Wayne Trace and Paulding school districts shared similar stories of adapting to remote learning. According to one principal at Paulding, the district went as far as hand delivering paper and pencil lessons to some children who lacked internet access.

In the end, the nation’s reliance on broadband technology during the pandemic led to an increased urgency in finally closing the digital divide. The Infrastructure and Investments Jobs Act (IIJA) alone allocated $65 billion in funding to be used towards constructing broadband infrastructure where none exists. This is in addition to the “$25 billion to invest in affordable high-speed internet and connectivity” spent or committed to in the American Rescue Plan Act, according to the White House.

The tens of billions of dollars being allocated for broadband infrastructure left us asking what we thought were simple questions: why is it so hard to get broadband to rural areas, and with all this money being allocated, why is so little of it coming to Paulding County?

This is the first of four articles that we hope will provide answers. The second article, appearing next week, examines the difficulties in determining who has broadband access and who doesn’t, and the decades-long quest to develop accurate maps. The following week will focus on the allocation of spectrum, the most important resource you’ve likely never heard of. Finally, we will examine the unique and innovative way that Paulding County is matching its ARPA funds with those of townships and villages to help local broadband providers lay fiber optic in unserved parts of the county. Our reporting will also show that when compared to bids placed by national companies for Paulding County, the local partnerships are proving to be far more efficient, both in terms of overall cost and the amount of taxpayer dollars required.

Congress first charged the Federal Communications Commission to report on whether advanced telecommunications capabilities were being made available to all Americans in a "reasonable and timely manner"  in Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It also charged the agency with taking “immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability” if the Commission ever reported in the negative.

Three decades and hundreds of billions of dollars later, the latest round of investments may represent the last great opportunity to ensure all Americans can access safe, reliable broadband.