To be young, and offline, in Rappahannock

Back to the main story: More smoke, less signal

Emily Little was shocked that she had cell service when she moved onto a college campus. She grew up in Rappahannock County, where very little of that has been available.

The 22-year-old Little noticed how often her fellow students used their cell phones and laptops to check if classes have been cancelled, to turn in assignments and to stay in touch with their peers through social media accounts.

Out of necessity, millennials in Rappahannock have developed other habits.

Across the U.S., about 51 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds check their smartphone a few times an hour for a variety of reasons, according to a 2015 smartphone usage survey conducted by Gallup Panel, a research-based consulting company.

In its county-wide survey last winter, the Foothills Forum found that broadband internet access and cell phone coverage were the top two topics of concern identified by community members — and of most concern among respondents in the 18-to-34 age group.

“I’m very used to not having cell phone service,” Little said, adding that her family only got satellite internet a year ago.

Now that she commutes an hour and a half to Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg from her Rappahannock home, Little finds ways around the lack of resources to complete her school work.

“I’ve adapted my sleep schedule, unfortunately,” Little said.

The internet provider at her house has a data cap, but it offers unlimited data from midnight to 5 a.m. When it nears midnight, Little said the service speeds up, making it a good opportunity to upload any assignments due the next day.

When an assignment needs to be turned in by midnight, Little finds herself driving 25 minutes to Culpeper to use the Wi-Fi at the local library or coffee shop.

Little added that she’s also started to email her professors in advance to warn them about her internet connection dilemma, opening the dialogue for them to confirm that they’ve received her assignments.

Aside from school work, all college students try to find time to hang out with friends. In Rappahannock, Little said, that also takes a little more effort.

“I know a lot of people communicate with apps like Whatsapp or Kik that run off of Wi-Fi and not cell service,” Little said.

She also takes advantage of the Facebook Messenger app, which acts as a texting tool, to keep in touch with her boyfriend when he’s on the way to her house, Little said.

While Little is at work at the Thornton River Grille, she said she gets more cell phone service because of a cellular-over-the-web signal booster at the restaurant.

“[The boosters] feed off of the Wi-Fi and they boost any sort of residual signal you might have,” Little said. “With that booster I get three bars of 3G and I can make a call from there.”

She added that she, along with the many in Rappahannock, uses a Sprint phone because of the carrier’s cell towers spread around the county.

Next to the Thornton River Grille is Rudy’s Pizza, where a few more millennials work their day jobs, but also work around the sparse internet and cell service.

John Strew, 19, lives in Madison, but drives to Rappahannock for his job at Rudy’s. He has AT&T as a cell provider, so he has to find other forms of communication.

“Most of the time it’s Facebook Messenger or Snapchat because you have to use Wi-Fi,” Strew said.

Planning ahead is essential to staying in touch with his peers, he said.

“It’s kind of painful when you think about the cell service out here,” said Cory Massey, Strew’s co-worker, who grew up in Rappahannock.

When he was at Rappahannock County High School, Massey said, there was almost no way to do his homework at home because his family had dial-up.

“I work off of a hot spot now but back then there was nothing,” he said.

At the time, Massey did all of his work at school or the library.

He added that he hopes the future of Rappahannock includes more cell service.

“It can be very very beneficial to the county,” Massey said. “It doesn’t have to be perfect cell service, you just need cell service for the kids.”

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