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Rural Oklahoma Struggles Under Weight of the Digital Divide

One of the most troubling broadband disparities is that faced by poor or rural schoolchildren. About 90 percent of Oklahoma's school districts are considered partly or entirely rural.

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(TNS) — As federal officials debate pouring billions of dollars into broadband access, data suggests many of Oklahoma's schoolchildren and adults spent the pandemic with sub-par access to high-speed Internet, particularly in the state's poorer counties.

Advocates say that "digital divide" across the United States is due largely to two factors: a lack of Internet infrastructure in rural areas and the relatively high cost of broadband in urban centers that, for some people, is simply unaffordable.

One of the most troubling broadband disparities is that faced by poor or rural schoolchildren. About 90% of Oklahoma's school districts are considered partly or entirely rural, said Erika Buzzard Wright, leader of the Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition, at a recent broadband forum.

"A lot of our rural kids don't have the resources they need to learn outside of the classroom," Wright said. "This inhibits their learning and exploration opportunities when you compare that to what their peers have at the same level in urban and suburban settings."

It's estimated that one of every four Oklahoma students don't have high-speed Internet access at home, which limits access to advanced placement courses and concurrent enrollment at universities.

Jones Public Schools Superintendent Carl Johnson saw that disparity in his rural eastern Oklahoma County district, especially at the height of the coronavirus pandemic last year. The State Department of Education provided wireless hotspots for students without broadband access to use at home, but for some people it wasn't enough.

"We distributed those hotspots but still found we had families without access because they can't even get reliable cell coverage where they're located," Johnson said.

The situation wasn't perfect even for those with Internet. It's harder to learn when videos freeze up or can't be accessed with spotty connectivity, Johnson said. About half the families in the district, even if they had access to digital learning tools at home, preferred to pick up paper copies of their lessons from the school.

"Free and appropriate public education, can I do it without Internet at home? Yes," Johnson said. "Can we offer those students everything that we have to offer? No."

While rural access is the most common issue discussed in policy circles, there are broadband deserts in urban areas, even well inside Oklahoma City limits.

One example is the Oak Grove neighborhood just a few miles from downtown. Last year, The Oklahoman profiled Jacob North, an Oak Grove resident who works at a high-tech office building across the street.

Major Internet service providers have broadband infrastructure nearby, but those providers were never linked to older homes on North's side of the street. In a follow-up interview this week, North said his neighborhood still doesn't have a broadband connection.

Last December, one of those major providers used a utility pole next to his house to connect fiber optic cable to another point across the street. High-speed Internet is literally feet away.

"It is a slap in the face," North said.

President Joe Biden and a bipartisan group of Senate moderates recently reached a deal on a far-reaching infrastructure plan that would direct $65 billion to increase broadband connectivity across the nation. Despite the agreement, it's unclear whether it would address the solutions some lawmakers want to see, such as continued broadband subsidies for low-income families, greater competition among wireless providers and continued buildout of high-speed networks in poorer, rural areas.

The Biden administration estimates 30 million Americans live in areas that lack broadband infrastructure to provide minimally acceptable speeds. In Oklahoma, 24% of residents don't have adequate broadband infrastructure and more than half live in areas that have only one Internet provider, according to the White House.

In 39 of Oklahoma's 77 counties, no more than 13% of households have high-speed access, a USA TODAY analysis of data from Microsoft's Airband Initiative shows.

Data collected by the Federal Communications Commission and Microsoft shows a wide gap between availability and usage:

  • In Oklahoma County, 94% of households could get broadband but 52% actually had it.
  • In Canadian County, 83% of households could get broadband but 52% actually had it.
  • In Cleveland County, 81% of households could get broadband but 50% actually had it.

The gap is significantly greater in rural and poor counties. In Rogers County, just outside Tulsa, up to 93% of households have at least one broadband provider in their area but just 13% have a subscription.

©2021 The Oklahoman, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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