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The Rural Broadband Gap Is Exposed as Students Move to Online Courses

By HOM Editorial Team
May 2020

In the blink of an eye, the educational system did a 180. While students have been adjusting, families and teachers certainly have as well. This rapid transition has exposed many elements in the educational system that have room for improvement, but the most notable findings are the broadband gaps in rural areas.

Millions of people don’t have reliable broadband — including 20 percent of rural students — which is causing a huge issue amongst pupils, putting a halt in their learning process that is out of their control. As the country responds to the COVID-19 outbreak, the disparities between rural communities and larger cities are more noticeable now than ever.

“A new BroadbandNow report estimates there are 42.8 million people in the U.S. lacking competent broadband access…”

In addition to switching the traditional class environment to an online system, many employees are now working remotely, and many health-related issues are being addressed primarily via telehealth. The advancement of technology in today’s modern world is guiding the way during this pandemic and assisting in integrating some normalcy as we work through these difficult times. Although these solutions thrive in urban and suburban areas, that is not the case for more rural regions where millions of Americans reside.

As we continue to integrate technology into our lives and are highly reliant on it now, there is a concern about the lasting impacts on millions of Americans without reliable internet. While a 2019 report by the FCC estimated that 21.3 million Americans lacked broadband access, a new BroadbandNow report estimates there are 42.8 million people in the U.S. lacking competent broadband access. With this nearly doubled new estimate and the need for reliable technology during this time, it’s transparent how damaging insufficient internet access can be for these citizens, who risk falling behind without it.

For those who live in more urban and suburban areas, the concept of unreliable internet will likely cause you to scratch your head. But not only are there areas with spotty service, there are also areas where neither cable nor DSL internet is even available. Many schools all over the country have confirmed they will be closed for the remainder of the school year and solely teaching classes virtually. This is troublesome for students in these rural areas, as it will be impossible for them to successfully log into their classes and get a step closer to graduation.

Nora Medina, a high school senior in Washington, lives 7 miles outside of her small town of Quincy and has zero access to the internet at home. She works around the extreme inconvenience by using her phone or attempting to hook up to her family’s hot spot but doing only one minor task can take triple the amount of time it normally would. She shares with Wired, “I’m just going to hope the hot spot works and wish for the best for my final quarter. If that doesn’t work, I’ll do my work from my car in the parking lot at the library to access their Wi-Fi.”

Can you imagine your car being the most convenient and reliable location to get work done?

“I don’t think there has ever been a moment where everybody understands the profound role that broadband plays in our nation’s life. This is no longer a matter of commerce, it is a matter of life and death.”

At this time, if students aren’t able to complete their lessons online, there are no other options. Therefore, this results in falling far behind the curriculum, which again is completely out of their control. In addition to students not being able to attend virtual classes, those who are concerned with their health aren’t able to utilize the increasingly popular option for health-related services and information: telehealth. As the distribution of crucial information and resources becomes only accessible via the internet, we are seeing more clearly how these technology-driven platforms are not a reality for rural America — where nearly 60 million people live.

Many small (and large) business owners have been shifting their focus to help support those in need during this pandemic while doing their best to keep their business afloat. Tom Egan, for example, owner of Craftsmen Mobility, switched gears from building wheelchair lifts to constructing masks, gowns, and face shields to sell to medical centers in NYC. The obstacle here was realizing his utter lack of broadband internet in upstate New York. While he was well aware of his spotty internet in the past, it became a much more serious issue once the pandemic ensued and he had to rely on the internet in order to produce products and get them in the hands of customers and suppliers.

It took Egan years to get a better connection after lobbying and the intervention of his local congressman. Considering the lengths one entrepreneur had to go to in upstate New York, you can only imagine the trouble other households are experiencing when trying to do the same. It’s clear that long before the pandemic began, access to broadband in rural areas was an issue. But now it is in the spotlight as it is a necessity for every citizen, even though a third of rural Americans don’t have access to broadband in their home.

Considering politicians are currently juggling billions of dollars’ worth of stimulus money, this has now become a political discussion. As Abigail Spanberger explains, “I think rural communities are realizing that this is as deep a divide as access to electricity was at the turn of the century, and if politicians want to be attentive to the communities they represent, broadband matters.”

One aspect that many haven’t grasped is the fact that those in these areas without reliable internet have simply been finding workarounds by using Wi-Fi at nearby coffee shops, sharing a friend’s internet, or heading to a local library. Even these inconveniences are intolerable, but now that people are staying home to stay safe, these cumbersome options aren’t even options anymore. As chief executive of the industry association US Telecom, Jonathan Spalter, so directly states, “I don’t think there has ever been a moment where everybody understands the profound role that broadband plays in our nation’s life. This is no longer a matter of commerce, it is a matter of life and death.”

There have been broadband plans in motion, but it continues to be extremely difficult given the US’s dispersed large lands. The time between receiving a grant to provide broadband to a specific region, and the connection being turned on, can be two years.

Handfuls of short-term solutions have been popping up as of late, given the present crisis, although these temporary fixes won’t eliminate potential long-term damage. Some thoughtful temporary solutions from the Morrisville-Eaton district in NY, for students specifically, include filming lessons and uploading them to a flash drive so they can be viewed without the internet, as well as providing students with Verizon hotspots. While these fixes are ideal, they are also expensive, which means most school districts cannot even come close to being able to afford them.

Greg Molloy, the superintendent of the previously mentioned school district, has been reaching out in any direction to put the money together and shares, “We don’t know where the money is going to come from but we know we have to do this for the kids and we will figure out the money situation later.” While these options are resourceful, they’re not a concrete and lasting solution.

A recent study by Michigan State University shows that students with reliable and fast internet at home scored half a grade higher than those without access to the internet, so there is no surprise that teachers are worried about how far their students will fall behind if they don’t have the necessary means to apply themselves.

The pandemic has industries and families scrambling to normalize their life in the interim, and it is bringing the issue of insufficient broadband in rural areas to light. There is hope that the current crisis will cause this issue to climb the priority ladder. The current US presidential candidates are both expressing their pledge to ensure that every citizen will have access to high-speed internet.

What we can take away from this highlighted issue is the urgency to close the digital divide that disconnects so many citizens of rural America. Programs such as USDA’s ReConnect and FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RFOF) are working hard to gain funding and support from private sectors in order to truly assist those in need. ReConnect alone has been awarded more than $600 million to help provide high-speed internet to over 150,000 homes, and RDOF guarantees as much as $20 billion over the next 10 years to fund reliable broadband networks in overlooked rural communities.

By getting these rural areas on the radar and expediting these programs, elected officials/non-profits are extending a hand to students, employees, and employers by connecting them with the necessary broadband capabilities.

A teacher at Maine-Endwell High School in rural NY shares what most of us are thinking — “It is 2020. Internet really should be a utility at this point.”



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