A student is pictured using his mobile phone.
A high-school student looks at his smartphone in New Cuyama, California, where the internet connection is below the recommended speed for the modern U.S. classroom. Christine Armario/AP

Millions of Americans lack high-speed internet at home and have to rely on smartphones to connect. The MobileOnly Challenge asks more people to understand how limiting that can be.

You can do a lot on your smartphone these days: Surf the web, connect with friends, perhaps even run a business. But could you run your entire life with your smartphone as your only portal to the Internet?

If at first that doesn’t sound like a challenge, consider 17-year-old Lilah Gagne. She’ll be the first to tell you just how much of a struggle it can be.

Gagne lives Meigs County in rural southeast Ohio, where access to high-speed internet is either unavailable or unaffordable for many families. Her family depends mainly on its mobile data plan to connect to the internet, which is far from ideal for the busy high school senior. She’s had to master the art of typing essays on her iPhone, and of multitasking. “I used to do my English homework in chemistry class, while I was doing chemistry and algebra II at the same time,” said Gagne, who attends school in the nearby, well-connected city of Athens. “I remember having to take screenshots of everything on my phone so I could look back at it later.”

She stays late after school to finish online assignments, or borrows internet from either her mom’s office or a friend’s house. Gagne has even gone as far as finding refuge in a Taco Bell for its free Wi-Fi after she had reached her data limit. (She now has unlimited data on her phone, but she says it has only made things a little easier.)

But, hey, don’t just take her word for it; try it for yourself.

That’s the call to action behind the MobileOnly Challenge, a campaign organized by advocacy group Next Century Cities. The challenge calls on people to spend a day in Gagne’s shoes—and those of the 23 million rural Americans who lack in-home high-speed internet services. For one full day in January, participants are asked to rely solely on their phones for internet access, and to share their experience on social media.

The challenge arose in protest to an expected decision at the FCC to change the definition of broadband internet. The FCC’s current policy, from the Obama administration, aims to connect everyone in the U.S. to broadband internet with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second, as well as mobile broadband. Now Chairman Ajit Pai proposes lowering that standard by more than 50 percent—to 10 megabits per second—and considering mobile broadband to be a sufficient replacement to a fixed high-speed connection at home.

Critics say this is merely achieving a goal by lowering standards, and Next Century Cities aims to highlight the consequences with the MobileOnly Challenge. “My productivity is incredibly limited and I am burning through my data at a crazy rate,” said the group’s executive director Deb Socia, who participated earlier this month. “This is a good way to experience it firsthand so I can be a better spokesperson, and to share publicly how hard it was.” So far, a dozen other organizations have pledged to take the challenge, along with the FCC’s Democratic commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel, and a handful of individuals.

Earlier this month at the American Farm Bureau Federation, President Donald Trump signed two new orders intended to help bring broadband to rural homes. They aim to open up federal land for companies to build broadband infrastructure, and expedite the federal permitting process. But critics say they leave out any mention of increasing funds and incentives for companies to even want to build out broadband networks in rural America in the first place. According to the FCC’s 2016 report, 39 percent of rural Americans still lack quality service.

A separate report by the Pew Research Center also found that 1 in 10 Americans are “smartphone-only” internet users. They’re more commonly lower income, earning under $30,000 a year, and they’re largely non-white, making up 15 percent of blacks and almost a quarter of Hispanics (compared to just 9 percent of white Americans). Under the proposed changes, they’ll be considered well connected, even if their connection speeds don’t change.

This move would allow the FCC to report that much of America is, in fact, covered, thus taking pressure off both the agency and internet providers to connect areas where they see little return in profits. “If you say that a particular community is covered with broadband because they have cellular service, that means they don’t get any sort of federal dollars to help build out broadband,” Socia said, referring to the Connect America program that offers subsidies to companies that build out broadband networks in rural areas.

Make no mistake, Socia said, mobile access in itself is a great innovation but it becomes problematic when users have no other options.

Imagine the challenges, say, for the average office worker. “If you want to do telecommuting, you can’t do that job,” she said. “Imagine being a disabled person and that the only way you can communicate with the outside world if you use your phone. Or if you are a farmer competing with people two towns over who have broadband access and can save a third of their water bill because they are using drought resistant technology.”

Some counties and cities, like Chattanooga, Tennessee, have built their own high-speed broadband networks to reach residents and communities who aren’t served by other providers. But as my colleague Adam Sneed reported, financial and legal barriers—namely state preemption laws—make it an improbable option for local governments in many states.

Back in Meigs County, where more than a third of residents cite cost as a barrier to in-home internet, Gagnes described her experience applying for college—but not before letting out an exasperated “Oh god.”

“There’s so much fine print when it comes to [College Scholarship Service] profiles and FAFSA,” Gagne said, referring to the documents needed to apply for financial aid. “I have to look up all this paperwork, and it’s just so hard to look at something in depth on a cell phone.”

For those who take the MobileOnly Challenge, they’ll only experience a fraction of what Gagne endures every day. And for Gagne, it’s a rarity to get a taste of something in her home that many consider a basic service.

“I would like to have the luxury to look something up on a computer and never have to worry that it’s not going to be there [later],” she said.

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