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Home Internet Access for All Students Is a Game-Changer

But a sizable number of lower-income families remain under-connected, or without Internet access at all. That hurts students who increasingly rely on education technology to learn.

An ongoing challenge for technology-focused K-12 schools is ensuring that all students have home Internet access. This issue is especially important for schools that have implemented educational technology game changers I’ve highlighted in previous blog posts: one-to-one computing, Open Educational Resources (OER) and learning management systems (LMS).

For most U.S. households, high-speed home Internet is viewed as a necessity rather than a luxury. But for lower-income families, and those living in rural areas, it remains an elusive commodity. Schools have tried to identify adequate solutions to this problem at a critical moment when all students in school should have reliable home Internet access.

Home connectivity is especially important for those schools implementing one-to-one computing programs, where the students’ digital textbooks and instructional materials all reside in the cloud. There are some workaround solutions for those students without home Internet: They can download content onto their laptop’s hard drives, or in the case of Chromebooks and their minimal hard drive space, work offline in Google Drive or load the materials onto a USB flash drive. Though doable, these are clunky measures that require an additional degree of planning for both students and teachers. In the end, however, without reliable Internet access at home, students’ limitations remain for meaningful online work.   

Most older students are resourceful problem solvers, especially when presented with a compelling need. And if completing their homework, or researching topics of personal interest, falls into this “compelling need” category, then students can probably find local Wi-Fi hotspots. Public libraries, community centers, restaurants, coffee shops, and the homes of friends and neighbors are other access possibilities. Some students — and their parents — may have smartphones with adequate speed and data plans, allowing students to connect to the phone as an Internet hotspot for their laptops or Chromebooks.

But for a deeper look into this home access topic, a 2016 research report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, Opportunity for All? Technology and Learning in Lower-Income Families, provides insights gathered from a survey of lower-income parents of students ages 6 to 13. The national survey explored the challenges these parents face in providing adequate Internet access for themselves and their children. Here are two of the report’s key findings:

  • 94 percent of the surveyed families have some form of Internet connection. But families who are 23 percent below the median income level and 33 percent below the poverty line are under-connected, having mobile-only access (smartphones) and constrained connectivity due to service interruptions and/or too many users for a single device.
  • Few (only 5 percent) have signed up for discounted Internet programs aimed at lower-income families, such as Comcast Internet Essentials.
Recognizing the importance of home Internet access, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Lifeline program, originally developed to provide low-income consumers with low-cost ($9.25) monthly phone service, was expanded in 2016 to include broadband Internet. However, a recent FCC decision to put the program’s expansion on hold is raising concern among schools that hoped Lifeline would help their low-income families get reliable home Internet service. But given the low participation rate for the Comcast Essentials program cited above, the Lifeline program’s impact may not be singularly substantial, presuming it does get back on track.    

Wi-Fi hotspots present another solution, and they’re being purchased by schools and loaned to students to help address home access issues. Cellular companies are coming to schools’ aid with hotspot and device grant programs, like Sprint’s The 1Million Project aimed at assisting high school students. Meanwhile, nonprofits, such as, are helping to connect families with local low-cost Internet providers and affordable computers for their school-age children.   

One can imagine it won’t be too long before high-speed Internet is as common in U.S. homes as electricity and indoor plumbing. But we’re not there yet. Until we are, closing this digital-use gap for our most at-risk students will require an all-hands-on-deck effort, with schools, government agencies, broadband providers and nonprofits all pitching in to do their part. Schools are finding creative ways to purchase laptops for their students, but efforts must continue to ensure they all have fast, reliable and low-cost home Internet access.