Despite federal and state progress expanding high-speed internet access to more schools across the nation, rural school districts are still playing catch-up. Now, new efforts offer opportunities to improve connections speeds–and along with them, learning.

Learning is increasingly digital, and rightfully so–today’s students are developing technology skills that are in high demand in a connected global economy. In fact, many students’ skills will fulfill requirements for jobs that don’t yet exist today.

But to be competitive and succeed in college and the workforce, students need high-speed internet access to use digital learning resources and digital tools. Rural schools and their communities often face tougher battles for high-speed internet than their suburban or urban counterparts. Often, service providers don’t deem it financially beneficial to extend high-speed capability out to rural areas and rural districts. And when they do, it’s very costly.

“The real challenge in rural schools is getting fiber to those schools,” said Evan Marwell, CEO of the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway, which recently released its second annual report examining internet access and connectivity in all U.S. states. “When you look at the roughly 3,700 schools without fiber optic connections, close to 79 percent are in what we would classify as rural or small town. The big issue is how we get fiber out to those schools.”

President Obama has often called high-speed internet access a right, noting it is critical for the future. But rural areas continue to struggle.

(Next page: Federal improvements and progress)