Teacher Alena Anberg shows Nancy Ocampo and her son Anthony how to connect their Chromebook to their Wi-Fi hot spot. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)
Third grade teacher Alena Anberg cruised down Highway 99 in her Ford F-150, past acres of almond orchards that split the terrain just outside her hometown of Arbuckle in Colusa County. She grew up in this town of 3,000 and knows the back roads well, which helped as she made several stops to deliver iPads, laptops and old smart phones with SIM cards installed to turn them into Wi-Fi hot spots.
In the days shortly after the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools, this was Anberg’s daily routine: helping students connect to their teachers online, by any means necessary.
Waiting outside his trailer home for the delivery was third grader Antonio Campos and his mom. He smiled shyly when Anberg walked up. The family had Wi-Fi thanks to the hot spot Anberg set them up with earlier, but they didn't know how to use the Chromebook. Anberg had returned to help.
Weeks into the school year, some 1.2 million students across the state still lack adequate internet access, and in rural California, about a third of families are not connected, according to an EdSource analysis.
Anberg has been laser focused on getting local internet providers to do more to connect people in her rural county, parts of which have been without reliable internet for decades.
“My third graders are eight years old and they're being held back academically by not having access," Anberg said. "I want it solved, because it was an issue before the coronavirus, for like 25 years. In the super rural places that don't have any kind of cell towers, they're really without a solution.”
It's a battle Anberg has taken on in earnest over the last six months, and now she and the school district may be on the brink of a major victory that would ensure that the all of the district's approximately 1,300 students have access to high quality, affordable internet service.
Decades earlier, Anberg herself was a victim of spotty internet and low speed service in her home town. It was a thorn in her side when she was a teen mom working and trying to complete her bachelor's degree online. As a graduate student, she would hunt for cell phone hot spots to take night classes, sometimes sitting in her car in a parking lot, while waiting for her son to finish his classes at the local community college.
“My mom was a police officer, a sergeant here, for the local sheriff's office for a lot of years. My dad was a crane operator," she said. "I believe education is a catalyst out of poverty for many families. I had kids young myself, so I know what it is to have that struggle.”
After shelter-in-place orders were issued in March, Anberg became increasingly worried about her students who were not connected to the internet. As a third grade teacher trying to instruct her students via distance learning, the problem of families not having reliable Internet service, or no service at all, galvanized her into action.
“This is our community, the families who are here," she said. "I feel we need to serve them."
Mapping Arbuckle's Internet
Anberg began going from home to home, knocking on doors and finding out which families had internet service. She made spreadsheets that mapped it all out, including students' siblings, then pinned each location in a Google map of internet coverage for her district, Pierce Joint Unified.
Many school districts across the country are currently struggling to get this kind of detailed information about their own students, according to Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).
"What you really need is actionable data," Krueger said. "Which means you have to know student by student, family by family, and that's highly private."
Families trusted Anberg, and eventually she knew which hot spot, carrier and brand worked at which address.
She did this all while teaching during the day and tutoring students remotely after school. In talking with families, Anberg quickly realized a bigger problem was affordability: Many companies were charging a $200 enrollment fee, and while some were offering deals during the pandemic, many local families didn't know about them.
At first, Anberg thought the easiest solution would be hot spots, which could help families with cell phones connect more cheaply. She helped the school district procure 200 Wi-Fi hot spots from T-Mobile's Education Empowerment Program, which arrived in June, free to families.
“The hot spots would have been a solution if we ever had enough, if we had one to one, and if we had the right brand at the right house," Anberg said.
Families began telling her that their hot spots weren't working because their homes were in places where T-Mobile didn't reach or because siblings were trying to share a single hot spot for class.
The district recently received 300 more hot spots from Verizon, which are being configured to meet privacy requirements before being distributed to families living in areas Verizon serves.
Still, Anberg had a bigger vision, said Carol Geyer, superintendent of Pierce Joint Unified, who said the district began to rely on Anberg's expertise.
"She was helping my teachers who didn't have reliable internet, maybe at home for themselves or for their own children," said Geyer. "Then she said, 'Wow, kids aren't connecting with school. What about their parents?'" Geyer said.
Anberg knew many families’ livelihoods during COVID-19 depended on reliable internet.
“So I hunted down all the internet company owners until I got their cell phone numbers and I called every single one of them,” Anberg said.
She finally found a sympathetic ear in the smaller, local company Succeed.Net, headed by Robert Lavelock.
“She's an amazing person. She really cares about her community," Lavelock said of Anberg. "It's kind of interesting that a teacher would take this on herself.”
Anberg has convinced several local people to allow Succeed.Net to put up equipment on their land. Lavelock has agreed to lease space from them and install wireless radio equipment needed to relay signals from tower to tower, which will finally bring high speed internet to those areas. And he will waive enrollment fees for new customers.
By helping Anberg, Succeed.Net will fill in a few of its own coverage gaps, said Lavelock, who grew up in the area and founded his company in 1995.
“It's not really a big money thing. I'm at the stage where I can now do things just to help the communities,” Lavelock said.
Lavelock shares Anberg's frustration with larger internet service providers (ISPs) which collectively have taken billions of dollars in government money to improve infrastructure in rural parts of the state but have not delivered, according to many industry watchdogs.
In Colusa County, the main provider is Frontier Communications, which recently filed for bankruptcy.
“Frontier has been the monopoly here for many, many years,” Anberg said. According to the 2019 California Broadband Infrastructure Report Card, Colusa County got an F+ grade. That's the grade given if the provider offers service, but doesn't meet minimum standards.
Even the school district itself is at the mercy of Frontier, said the superintendent.
"Frontier is our provider and and they aren't always reliable," Geyer said. "Last week we went a day and a half with no internet whatsoever. We lost connectivity at the district level."
Frontier told KQED that it had responded promptly to resolve the disruption to Pierce Unified's service and that the trouble was caused by a piece of equipment that was not available until the next day.
"In a large, geographically diverse area, service interruptions occur," the company said in a statement.
Over the years, Anberg has become convinced government should consider internet a public utility like electricity and water, ensuring it is available and affordable to everyone. She had seen effective Wi-Fi networks in rural parts of Costa Rica when she traveled there, and didn’t understand why parts of California, known globally for its tech savvy reuptation, couldn’t make it work. She began to dig into the issue.
“I found out that there's been legislation toward helping rural infrastructure for at least 10 years, in the Connect America I and Connect America II legislation, but that funding went to carriers who absorbed it, but then did not build that infrastructure,” said Anberg. “They weren't held accountable, because they're self reporting.”
"A lot of the mapping data that the federal government has been relying on is woefully inaccurate,” said Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at EFF. “But it's inaccurate because the industry is supposed to report it and there hasn't been any sort of investigation in terms of who's abusing their position on that.”
Anberg did her own sleuthing into census-block mapping to find out how Frontier was using its funds. She said Frontier absorbed $140 million in Connect America II funds over four years and claimed it had enhanced broadband to certain addresses in Arbuckle, but when Anberg checked with customers at those addresses they told her their service had not improved.
Frontier responded in a statement that it is the Federal Communications Commission, not Frontier, which identifies the specific areas that qualify for funding to enhance broadband services, and that the company is committed to meeting its Connect America Fund obligations according to the program’s requirements.
Meanwhile, Frontier continues to apply for and receive state funding. In May it applied for a California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) grant which is being reviewed by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). If approved, Frontier said it is confident it can bring "enhanced broadband to even more of Colusa County."
The CPUC recently saw its authority over the state’s broadband industry restored after ten years of deregulation won by the industry expired.
“A lot of effort has been happening in California the last couple of years to build up the state's capacity to regulate these companies themselves,” said EFF’s Falcon. “If the federal government won't do it, then we should be."
In December, the CPUC approved nearly $11 million for Frontier to deploy "middle mile" fiber and high speed lines in Lassen and Modoc counties. But the connectivity speed the state is requiring is outdated, said the EFF's Falcon.
A bill before the state Legislature this past session, Senate Bill 1130, dubbed “Broadband for All,” would have fixed that, requiring ISPs to provide high speed infrastructure, but it died on the floor in August. State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said a three-way deal could not be reached, while Long Beach's state Sen. Lena Gonzalez, a Democrat who sponsored the bill, said no explanation was given for killing the bill.
While legislators squabble, the state has moved to close the digital divide in other ways. Gov. Gavin Newsom pushed the CPUC to make $25 million available from the California Teleconnect Fund for hot spots and internet service for student households. School districts will be able to apply to receive 50% discounts on the cost of hot spot devices and on monthly recurring service charges until Sept. 30 of this year.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and state Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, assembled a task force of ISPs in April, asking them to come up with solutions. Thurmond has also cut deals with different companies, including Apple and T-Mobile, to get tablets equipped with Wi-Fi to students in need.
But tired of waiting, some rural school districts across the country are getting creative on their own by figuring out how to bring the internet into students' homes through public-private partnerships between state agencies and telecoms, essentially setting up their own community networks.
That's what Anberg's district has just decided to do. Faced with footing the bill for hundreds of students' hot spots to the tune of $72,000 a year, the district hopes instead to use state funds to establish its own district-wide network by joining Edunet, a Colusa County education effort that wants to leverage the educational band of the LTE spectrum to transmit to students' homes. Anberg was brought in by the superintendent to be part of the talks.
“I am super blessed that the families here trusted me with their internet information, and now I get to honor that by getting them connected," Anberg said.
After months of relentless work to get students connected, Anberg said she can’t wait to return to the mobile home park where she started this work to tell the families they might finally have an affordable internet option.
“Between the new carrier, bringing awareness of options to families, and the hot spots that we already had going, every address will have internet access!!!” Anberg wrote on Facebook. “Can you believe it? Only took six months!”