By: Steve Meany, CEO
In an effort to bridge the so-called digital divide, school districts across the country have been giving students laptops to use in the classroom and at home. But for many of these students, there’s no point in taking the laptops with them at the end of the day because they can’t get online where they live. While only two percent of people in urban areas lack broadband service, a much larger 39 percent of those in rural areas do. That’s approximately 725,000 people without the internet access they sorely need.
Equal Access to Information
First, the good news. The 2016 Broadband Progress Report adopted by the Federal Communications Commission found that 90 percent of Americans have access to broadband internet service at the FCC’s benchmark speed of 25 Mbps for downloads and 3Mbps for uploads. But the 10 percent who don’t represent 34 million people, including the students who need it most. The statistics get worse the more rural the location. For example, the same report found that 68 percent (1.3 million) of people living in rural areas of Tribal lands lack access.
An increasing number of schools do have high-speed connections, but 41 percent of schools and 47 percent of students lack the connectivity they need to meet the FCC’s goal of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students/staff. The challenge for the private and public sectors is how to expand robust broadband to all Americans in a timely way.
Too many students face what is called the “homework gap.” The challenge of working on homework assignments without a dependable internet source at home means students must often head to the library or other wifi-enabled locations like cafes to squeeze in the extra hours for homework.
The homework gap can have serious, long-term implications, as today’s students need digital skills to survive and thrive. Many educators believe the dearth of access to broadband is robbing millions of students of their full potential. So, what can be done? Some cities and counties are looking for creative ways to fund the gap, including applying for state grants.
Boosting Rural Internet Service
Many rural teachers feel duty-bound to get their students the internet access they need in order to compete on a level playing field. Some do their part by opening classrooms early and keeping the library open late. There are a number of funding opportunities out there, but competition for money is fierce and the available funds limited.
- In Wisconsin, state broadband grants are aimed at getting rural communities out of the digital slow lane. More than a dozen local telecom companies are poised to receive $1.5 million from government subsidies, which will help boost internet service in more than 20 communities.
- In California, the Coachella Valley Unified District has fitted school buses with routers, making it easier for students to work on homework assignments as they travel back and forth to school. The buses are double-duty vehicles: after drop-offs are finished at the end of the day, they’re parked in public spaces where students can safely study close to home.
- In Colorado, the state recently granted $2.1 million in grants to bring broadband to rural communities, with eight infrastructure projects awarded grant funding that will help bring broadband internet access to over 4,700 households and 175 businesses.
Access to broadband internet service is vital to rural communities, and more comprehensive strategies will need to be developed to improve access for every community. School systems will not solve the problem alone. Communities, elected officials, businesses, and the philanthropic community all have a vital role to play.