As schools made a fast transition to remote learning amid the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis, many students fell behind due to a lack of high-speed Internet connectivity within their homes.
The recent move of schools to remote learning has been a decidedly mixed success. Since the beginning of the pandemic, districts across the country have gone to great lengths to provide their students with digital devices so they can continue their schooling from home. And teachers have quickly and impressively advanced their remote teaching skills. But one formidable barrier remains: More than 9 million students still don’t have the high-speed home Internet required for online learning.
With the prospect of schools having to continue with remote learning in some fashion for the 2020-21 school year, these students’ lack of high-speed connectivity will continue to be a major issue, and it must be addressed quickly and systemically. A failure to do so means those students, many of whom have already fallen behind academically over the past several months, will only further trail their better-connected classmates.
Schools have scrambled to offer workaround Internet solutions to students — portable take-home Wi-Fi hot spots, extending school Wi-Fi into surrounding parking lots, parking Wi-Fi-enabled school buses in neighborhoods, and promoting reduced-rate high-speed Internet plans through local Internet service providers (ISPs). But some of these solutions are less-than-adequate for remote learning, and others may be unsustainable for schools to provide in the long term.
One hopes the recent attention on the home Internet digital divide will be a call to action for our government and society that results in real change. But given that we can’t look to the telecom industry to solve this problem, what can be done?
Leverage E-rate. The current Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has emergency power options it can deploy for using the federal E-rate funds it oversees to help meet students’ remote learning needs. But whether it will choose to do so is currently an open question.
Additionally, Emergency Educational Connections Act legislation has been introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate to provide an additional $2 billion (House version) or $4 billion (Senate version) to E-rate qualifying schools and libraries to ensure students’ Internet connectivity for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, though these funds channeled through E-rate would certainly help address an immediate need, they are only stopgap answers to a problem that needs long-term solutions.
Provide municipal broadband for all residents. Prior to the pandemic, over 750 U.S. cities had been offering free or low-cost high-speed Internet to their residents. Chattanooga, Tenn., and Fort Collins, Colo., are two cities that have made this investment, and others would do well to follow their lead.
Undo Restrictive Legislation. A recent Washington Post article describes how many states — including Virginia, the focus of the Post’s reporting — are handcuffed in providing home Internet access to their residents by state laws that prevent them from doing so. Though Virginia’s non-compete broadband legislation is recognized as being one of the most restrictive, 22 other states, at the behest of the telecom lobby, have enacted similar laws that prevent well-intentioned municipalities from offering free or low-cost broadband to their residents.
Address the needs of rural and tribal areas. Rural areas of the country are the most underserved for high-speed Internet as they offer few profitable incentives for ISPs to install their networks. So it will take a concerted governmental intervention to get these areas connected. And this is especially true for tribal lands in the Western U.S. The technology required to provide wireless, satellite or radio wave Internet to residents in these far-flung regions continues to be expensive or inadequate for the 25 megabits per second high-speed bandwidth required for video conferencing and remote learning. And given that some of these tribal areas are still without electricity and running water, the gravity of their needs goes well beyond Internet bandwidth.
Recognize high-speed Internet as a necessary public utility. Just as President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal programs led the fight to ensure electricity reached all parts of the country — both urban and rural — so must our government do the same with high-speed Internet. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed many of the frayed threads in the fabric of American society. And it has further underscored how we must recognize high-speed Internet as a public utility, like electricity, that’s required for everyone’s work, education and communication needs. So we have to get this right, and right away. Because a new school year looms and a lot is at stake.
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