Remote Woodman school struggles with minimal internet speeds

by NBC Montana, Maritsa Georgiou

High-speed internet is something many of us take for granted. After hearing what one isolated Montana school deals with, you may think twice before ever complaining about slow internet again.

NBC Montana found out about a connectivity problem at Lolo’s Woodman School. Once we told lawmakers, something started to change.

Remember the sound of old dial-up internet? It may not sound the same, but kids at Woodman School near Lolo are working with the same internet speeds many of us remember from 25 years ago.

“You have to learn your patience if you want to be able to do this,” 9-year-old student Aspen told us.

Teachers are beyond frustrated.

“We tried to use a simple website called to write bibliographies, and it froze up in the lesson,” teacher Neil Murray told us. “And before you know it I’ve got the kids bouncing around the room because I’m freezing up trying to teach.”

Right now the school’s on a DSL line that runs from Lolo, but it’s shared. As the line moves up the road every person using the internet along the way takes away a piece of the pie — or speed, in this case.

“We’ve been almost 25 minutes now, and half the kids — not even half — are able to use the internet,” supervising teacher Kelly Hoover told us one afternoon during a lesson.

The FCC says schools should run 1 megabits per second per student. That means Woodman should have internet speeds of 36 Mbps. It’s typically less than 1 percent of that.

“Can you even imagine?” asked Hoover. “Our kids go through eighth grade. By the time they leave here they go into the big schools in Missoula. Everybody sitting in a desk around them is going to be internet savvy.”

The school has to pay to bus students into Lolo to take online standardized tests in an unfamiliar environment.

“To have to load up students on to a bus to go into Lolo and use their computer lab is kind of discouraging,” Murray said. “And that says to them we’re not good enough.”

That’s part of why Gov. Steve Bullock signed a law that created a state match for federal broadband funds. But a planned CenturyLink fiber-optic line up Highway 12 never happened. The FCC required documentation about the proposal; CenturyLink wouldn’t supply it, and the project died.

So the school started a letter-writing campaign. One student wrote, “My class wants to be like other kids that live in the city.”

“It shows them that students in rural America have less opportunity, and really, internet should be something that brings opportunity to places like rural America,” Murray said.

The school heard nothing. So NBC Montana called Sen. Jon Tester’s office. Days after our call, Tester and Bullock wrote to the FCC chairman. Their letter demands the agency do something to stop rural schools like Woodman from getting left behind.

“We’re in the 21st century. Our kids need to have a 21st century education if they’re going to compete in this economy that we have,” Tester said. “Making sure they have adequate broadband is a big part of those educational opportunities. To have a grant turned away because of governmental red tape is exactly what’s wrong with Washington, D.C. And we’re willing to work with Chairman Pai to make sure this grant gets out to a place that really needs it, and that’s the Lolo school system. Let’s fix a wrong and make it right.”

“It’s just frustrating because, in the end, it’s about the kids,” Woodman IT specialist Jeff Crews told us. “We just want adequate balance for our students so they can do the things that they’re doing 10 miles down the road.”

For now, these kids wait not only for their internet browsers but for the federal government.

As of Thursday afternoon the FCC hadn’t responded to Tester and Bullock’s letter. It’s not just Woodman. The nonprofit Education Superhighway says 38 fiber-optic projects in 17 states have been delayed or denied by the FCC.