Will America finally get internet right for rural students?

(NewsNation) – Some students in North Carolina’s Stokes County School District are finding their Wi-Fi using a district-issued map that directs them to library parking lots and nearby elementary schools.

“Approach the building,” read the online instructions for the local YMCA. Another option is a few internet blocks near the local fire station.

It’s one solution where 21% of homes in the region don’t have access to the Internet — nearly three times the national average, according to a 2019 Pew Research study..

“It’s not that they don’t want it,” said Taylor Fulk, a former student in the district who went on to college. “It is because there is no infrastructure necessary for that to happen.”

A new federal government plan aims to close the digital divide in places like Stokes County, located minutes from the Virginia border and more than 100 miles northwest of the state capital.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was signed into law in 2021 and that began last year is drawing $65 billion in broadband infrastructure to bring high-speed Internet to more than 30 million Americans who live without it. It also seeks to prevent “digital discrimination” based on factors including race and income.

The act also expanded the Emergency Assistance Program, which was created in 2020 to help low-income households stay connected during the COVID-19 crisis. That benefit is now known as the Accessible Communications Program and offers discounted broadband service and connected devices such as laptops, computers or tablets to eligible households.

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Through the Infrastructure Act, North Carolina, which has the second-largest rural population in the country, will receive at least $100 million to support additional broadband development across the state.

There’s a reason why the new law focuses on rolling out broadband and low-cost devices. The US Office of Education and Technology has identified a lack of major infrastructure — which can include anything from towers and cables to underground fiber lines — as one of the leading barriers to Internet access.

When Internet service providers put less money into that infrastructure in low-income or disadvantaged areas, it’s called digital redlining, which also contributes to inaccessibility, according to the National Council on Aging.

All of this links back to education. A study conducted by the Quello Center for Media and Information Policy found that students who do not have home internet or rather rely on their cell phones alone are less likely to complete their schoolwork, more likely to have a low GPA and less likely to complete their schoolwork. having plans to complete a college education than those who are well connected.

“You can’t stay competitive or competitive in today’s economy without access to the Internet,” said Fulk, who graduated from Stoke County.

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In Stokes County, the four-year graduation rate is on par with the rest of the state. But most schools in Stokes County have grades of C or D from the North Carolina Department of Public Education, which measures school success and student academic growth.

Lazy internet made it difficult for Fulk to complete assignments. He also saw it as having an impact on his public life.

While students in the class chatted with each other on social media and made plans to hang out, Fulk couldn’t watch a YouTube video and sometimes waited 15 minutes for websites to load, he said.

The economic divide was hard to ignore.

“When I visited their homes, (they) had a modem/router setup all wireless and they had faster speeds than I did,” Fulk said.

The tables turned when he started college and had access to a personal laptop and fiber optic internet. Fulk said he saw what the locals were missing. In addition to accessing social media, Fulk was able to attend Zoom meetings and turn in his assignments online without worrying about loading speeds or a weak connection.

“My internet speed with Google Fiber was a blazing fast 1gbps and only $70 a month,” he said. “I know people at home who pay that, or more, for slow speeds and unreliable connections.”

It will take years to determine whether the rural internet plans of the infrastructure law are paying off. Broadband expansion must be completed within four years of receiving funding under the new law. Construction on some projects may take longer, however, especially in areas where fiber needs to be installed, attorney Carrie Bennet wrote in Broadband Communities Magazine.

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There is also the issue of how the federal government decides who needs better Internet access. Late last year, the Federal Communications Commission released an updated but preliminary version of its national broadband map, detailing where broadband is available and what quality it is. The goal is to use the map to improve equal access across the country.

A pair of Nevada senators have written to the FCC, saying its broadband map misrepresents the availability and quality of coverage across the state.

As for Stokes County, schools are better connected than before the pandemic, said Karen Barker, director of media and technology for Stokes County Schools. That’s thanks to Internet service available through government programs like the Emergency Connectivity Fund, which has helped schools and libraries distribute distance learning tools, Barker said.

Until Internet access is more evenly distributed, however, some students will not have a way to complete assignments at the library or the nearest elementary school. That’s especially true for families without guaranteed transportation or flexible plans, he said.

“If high-speed Internet was widely available and affordable, all students would have a level playing field,” Barker said.


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