Nearly every aspect of life today is tied to the online world, from work to managing finances to communication and shopping. But what happens when the internet isn’t readily available? While for some getting online is as routine as commuting to work, for others in a rather large swath of Lamar County it quite a bit more complicated.
That’s because roughly 80% of residents in the unincorporated areas of Lamar County lack access to home internet service, said WiFires owner Mossie Kines.
“Basically, everything not in one of the main path cities — so places like Tigertown, Pattonville and Sumner — isn’t served,” Kines said. “A lot of the internet providers here don’t think there’s enough density in those areas to warrant running lines there.”
Internet is much more readily available in the county’s incorporated cities, though even there Kines said just 65.4% of residents have home internet.
“Still, that’s 34.6% who still don’t have it,” he said.
“Almost everything is online these days, so not having internet is huge,” WiFires representative Melissa Jernigan said. “Nowadays you do your banking online, email, social networks… There are some jobs where you basically need to have the internet.”
The problem also extends to cellular service, Kines said, as he noted many parts of the county lack adequate phone service.
“I used to live in Tigertown, and I wouldn’t get service in my house,” Kines said. “That’s a big problem we’re working on, too.”
Without access to home internet, several people look for places throughout the community where they can connect to the online world.
One such place is the Paris Public Library, located at 326 S. Main St. Library Supervisor Ron Hervey said roughly 30 to 35 people visit the library every day solely to use the computers, and several more come each day to use the library’s free Wi-Fi with their laptops or smartphones.
Local residents with library cards can log onto the facility’s computers for free for three hours at a time. Non-residents can purchase a visitor’s pass for $5, which is good for five sessions on the computers. Registering for a library card is free.
“Most of the people who come to use our computers are looking for jobs,” Hervey said. “It’s really hard anymore to go out and apply for jobs at the store; almost everything is online.”
Other common uses of the public library’s computers include checking emails and applying for benefits. Hervey also said local students can be found at the computers during the school year working on homework.
“We limit games and chat on these computers, so you don’t see a whole lot of that, but people can still use Facebook and do all the other social stuff,” he said.
The library also helps people with little to no experience using computers or the internet.
“It’s primarily older folks,” Hervey said. “The kids, you know, they’ve been working with computers since they were in kindergarten pretty much; they were raised with this. But a lot of older folks might not have had to really use computers before.
“That’s what we’re here for. To provide help and work with people who need the assistance, and that’s probably my favorite part of the job.”
Hervey said a challenge facing the community is the lack of places people can go to access the internet.
“That’s the problem in Paris: there’s just not a lot of options,” he said. “You can go to restaurants and they’ll have wifi, but as far as going in and using a computer that’s set up, there’s really not much. I think there’s the (Paris Junior College) library, and I think you need a library card for that, too.”
Work is being done to help bring internet access to the offline parts of the county, however. Kines said WiFires is in the process of placing towers throughout Lamar and Red River counties.
“We’ve gotten Lamar pretty well covered at this point,” he said. “Roxton is our only gap in Lamar County, and we’ll be putting a tower there first.”
After a tower is placed there, Kines said they’ll have internet service in almost every Lamar County community.
And in Red River County, the company recently worked with the municipal governments to add towers in Detroit and Bogata. In each city, the towers were attached to the city’s water tower. Each tower covers approximately five miles, Jernigan said.
“I prefer to work with cities and rent from cities,” Kines said. “I don’t mind working with companies, and I do that too, but if I work with cities, I’m supplementing them and supporting the communities.”
Kines said WiFires also plans on extending service into parts of Delta and Choctaw counties, though he isn’t sure on a timeframe for when that might start.
“Basically all our media today goes through the internet,” Kines said. “If you don’t have access to the internet, you don’t have access to a lot of resources other people have, and we’re trying to bring the internet to people who wouldn’t otherwise have it.”