Photo: Florida State College DeSoto County

DeSoto's South Florida State College Helps Students and Faculty with Limited Internet Access

Posted on April 01, 2021 by Justin Garcia, Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Editor's Note: This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire and engage the community to take action on issues related to digital access.

When South Florida State College in DeSoto County was closed for in-person classes last year because of COVID-19, students flocked to the parking lot to do their school work.

They did not have a reliable internet connection at home, so they had to grab their laptops and drive or catch a ride to the college to use the Wi-Fi there. They would sit hunched over in their cars, working on assignments.

Asena Mott, director of South Florida State College's DeSoto campus, tells the story of a mother and daughter who drove to the college to use the Wi-Fi almost every day. On one sweltering afternoon, the mother's car overheated, the daughter's school work was disrupted, and they had to pay to get their vehicle repaired.

This is just one story in a litany of struggles students and faculty face with the scarcity of broadband internet in DeSoto.

The SFSC campus reopened last May, with COVID-19 protocols in place, so students no longer have to sit in cars in the parking lot to complete their assignments. Yet, they still deal with obstacles in completing their schoolwork.

Mott says that the college receives decent broadband service through DeSoto's main provider, CenturyLink, because they are located in the heart of Arcadia, DeSoto's most populated area.

Outside of the Arcadia area, broadband connection drops rapidly in DeSoto County, as this map from BroadbandNow demonstrates. An FCC map further highlights the issue, showing that many DeSoto residents access broadband speeds at one-third the national average.

Those who cannot travel to the college and instead try to work on and submit schoolwork from their home internet connections or hotspots put their grades at risk.

"When students say that they did their work and tried to submit it, but just watched the loading symbol spin around and around, I feel for that child," Mott says. "I've experienced similar situations before."

Students can request grade changes from their instructor in these cases, but Mott says that many have said that their grades have been negatively affected by the lack of a reliable broadband connection.

Melissa Johnson is the office manager at SFSC DeSoto and lives just a five-minute drive west of Arcadia. She tries to access Zoom classes for her online college courses at home, but the video stream is too much for her connection to handle. She tries to just use audio, but her instructors want her to have her video on to confirm attendance, so she goes to the college's library to take her classes. She works at the college 40 hours a week, and using their connection adds another 5-10 hours a week on campus.

"It would be nice to do my school work from the comfort of my own home," Johnson says. "But I am also very happy that the connection here is available for me to use."

Sometimes, the college even sees a community member in need show up to use their Wi-Fi. Mott says that an older woman showed up recently and said she was having a terrible time with her connection at her house. She asked to use their library, and the college obliged.

"Over this past year, we've been made acutely aware of the lack of reliable connection both students and faculty in DeSoto have access to," says Chris van der Kaay, executive director of Institutional Effectiveness, Planning and Technology for SFSC.

Van der Kaay says the college is working on upgrading its connection to fiber-optic cable at locations around the state and in DeSoto because they realize how important having a strong connection is for their staff and students. While they've had a good relationship with CenturyLink, Van der Kaay says they're in the process of switching to Comcast for the fiber-optic project in DeSoto, hopefully, to be completed by May.

This begged the question: Will the college's upgrade to fiber-optic broadband influence it spreading to other parts of the county?

"We can't speak to the whole of DeSoto County, but we hope that improvements continue so that our staff, students, and faculty have what is needed to succeed," says Melissa Kuehnle, director of institutional communications for SFSC.

Van der Kaay hopes that counties like DeSoto will one day reap the benefits of reliable high-speed internet for more of the residents. He lives in Highlands County, another rural area just east of DeSoto County. At home, he says he receives an average download speed of 8 Mbps, which is about one-tenth of the national average and is similar to speeds some DeSoto County residents receive.

"The reason it's so important is that when families are thinking about moving somewhere, one of the questions they ask is, 'Is there a decent broadband connection in the area?'" Van der Kaay says. "And having a decent connection brings in people, businesses, investments, and other positive things."

Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest.