Living without internet accessibility in the digital age

WALTON COUNTY, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - For many, surfing the web has become part of our everyday lives and can't imagine not having internet access.

But for one family, access is not what they thought it would be.

Shannon Humphrey and her family recently moved to DeFuniak Springs, and according to them, having internet access is more than just a luxury, it's a necessity.

"I think a lot of people look at it like it's not needed or it's not a necessity, it's not a necessary utility but we are at the point where it is. It's almost like the telephone was decades ago. People didn't need that until they got it and then everybody went to it and that's our form of communication. The new generation that is their new form of communication," said Humphrey.

"From the top of our county to the bottom of our county, whether it's a rural or more urban area in Walton County, we have major issues with residents getting proper internet speeds and problems with our providers building their infrastructure," Walton County Administration Projects and Programs Manager Rick Wilson said.

"So we did a lot of research to plan a place to move and we wanted rural so we knew that could come with internet concerns," explained Humphrey. "I called Century Link three times before moving and all three times I was told I would have 20 meg download speed, it was good internet and that we could get it."

But when they moved to their new home, she said reality sank in.

"Once we got here we called and schedule for the internet to be installed. They did schedule it and said it could be installed and still said it was available," Humphrey said, "but on the morning that the tech was supposed to install it, he called and said it wasn't actually available. That they had too many customers in that area already connected to bandwidth and that they were exhausted and that I couldn't get it for an undefined period of time, up to months perhaps."

After calling her provider several times to no avail, she contacted Senator George Gainer and finally gained access to a limited amount, but at the expense of others.

"I don't know how he got them to do it, but what was explained to me was there were 12 megs in the box that was near me, 24 customers had been put on 12 megs of internet, so that left only a half a meg per customer, so there were already complaints in the area," Humphrey described. "And out of that 12 megs I was given 10 megs of that in order to quiet my complaint."

But not only did the limited internet access affect her source of income, it also affected her children's education.

"My daughter came in with A's and B's in Biology. She had an A overall for the year and they didn't offer that here but opened it up for her online. However, the only way she could study or complete the course was online and so without that access, her grade actually went to a D for Biology. Because at that point we actually didn't have any internet access at home at all," said Humphrey.

Now as she struggles to make her new way of life work, she's relying on state and county officials to give providers a push to bring more services.

"We're having problems getting our providers to provide the service to our residents to provide the infrastructure to meet the needs and demands of the public and that affects everything from public health to education, to public safety, to economic development," said Wilson. "And until we can address these things this county is going to struggle to attract people and retain people who have high paying jobs and want to live here and help pay taxes in Walton County and be a part of this community."

"If I had known that it would be months before we would get the internet for the kids and that they would suffer with their educational need, we wouldn't have moved here," Humphrey added.

"Just like Ms. Humphrey, there are thousands of residents just like her. I'm one of them. I struggle with internet speeds and getting secondary education for my children," Wilson voiced.

"Walton County is one of the more progressive counties in the state of Florida when it comes to broadband. This is a serious issue for us. Transfer of wealth is a major thing," Wilson continued. "When our kids go to college and come back here, there is nowhere for them to work because we don't have the proper businesses that high-speed internet attracts, the development that comes with it. They leave, they go to more populated areas. Tallahassee, Tampa, Atlanta, because there are jobs there. There is money there to make and that's what we need to stop here, is that transfer of wealth. And it starts with fiber in the ground and high-speed internet to our residents."

"It was less crime here, slower paced life, a better environment for our children, but with that, it cannot be a trade-off. We can't have a better area with less crime but then have the children not have access to the internet for studying and for educational purposes and that's what we found," said Humphrey.

Now Wilson and his team are pitching to commissioners to approve a new policy that will hopefully entice providers to come to the area.

"What that would mean when a subdivision or development goes into the ground, we would add extra conduit in that development so that new residents can have these services. Anytime we dig up a road that has a certain amount of distance, we would put conduit next to the road. It makes it easier for these providers to expand their services and in the future need be, Walton County can help expand those services through a public/private partnership," explained Wilson.

And although it will come with more costs to the county, Wilson believes if the county can implement these new policies, it will pave the road for providers to increase access to the information highway.

"There is definitely going to be cost with this. We can't put in infrastructure for free, but our commissioners are aware of these costs and we'll have to present some of these numbers to them in detail because it's just the beginning of these stages of this," Wilson explained. "There is proven statistics that show economic development improvements with broadband where it's made available and we just want to make that a reality in Walton County."

He said by adding the fibers during the initial project, it will save everyone money and time in the long run.

"Adding conduit to a road project is no more than one percent of the cost, an increase of the actual project, so when we talk about a large road and adding one percent of the cost. There is a cost there, but those costs are going to be mitigated by what we get from that, what comes out of providing these services to our residents," he added.

Wilson said they will continue to fight for what is best for the citizens of Walton County.

"You have to understand that everything these telecom providers do is about return on investments. And when the first ran these lines 10, 20 years ago there were 40-50 thousand people in Walton County. Now with the expectation of population boom over the next 5-10 years, that's drastically going to change but from a telecom providers standpoint, until it's here there is no point in running these lines. And what we tell them is let us work with you to run theses lines, public and private partnerships help expedite the permitting process. We're here to help and do that and we just need more players to come to the table and want to see Walton County move forward," he explained.

Hear Wilson's raw interview and more from Humphrey in the attached videos above.