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.
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“Rural areas have significantly slower internet access, with 39 percent lacking access to broadband of 25/4 Mbps, compared to only 4 percent for urban areas,” according to a July 2016 Brookings report. “This rural/urban “digital divide” in access severely limits rural populations from taking advantage of a critical component of modern life.”
The good news, though, is that fiber connections were included in the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate Upgrade. For four years, the FCC has removed the cap on spending to get fiber to schools, which Marwell said is “particularly critical for rural schools.”
Some service providers are stepping up, spurred by a renewed focus on equity, to help rural schools give students the same high-speed internet access that is readily accessible to many students in suburban and urban schools.
“Governors know they need broadband and fiber to their schools,” Marwell said. “The reality is, the cost to build to rural schools is the highest because they’re the farthest away. Service providers can’t justify it with their own economics.”
In Virginia’s Fauquier County Public Schools, a large number of students live in areas that have limited or no wi-fi connectivity. All of the district’s schools have wi-fi, but lack of home internet access, or restricted home internet access, harms students, said Louis McDonald, the district’s director of technology services.
While the district hopes to fund broadband expansion in the next several years, students needed access immediately.
The district partnered with mobile internet provider Kajeet to give students that immediate access. Students can visit school media centers to check out Kajeet’s SmartSpot devices, which provide wi-fi hotspots, for mobile access at home. The devices connect to Kajeet’s Sentinel platform, which allows the school to filter out unsafe or irrelevant content and manage data allocations.
“We recognize that there is a digital equity issue in our county,” McDonald said. “Significant limitations on internet access have impacted the ability of many of our students to do their homework and be fully engaged. We asked, ‘How can we provide our students – and our teachers – with a service that facilitates learning and helps our children succeed?’ We found the answer in our partnership with Kajeet.”
FCPS also aims to get more devices in the hands of students who lack access. The district runs a refurbished laptop program with community partners, and students who qualify for free and reduced lunch can qualify for a free refurbished device.
Some districts are equipping their school bus fleets with wi-fi while they search for funding and solutions to bring high-speed internet to schools and school communities.
The Huntsville Independent School District in Texas partnered with Presidio to deploy wi-fi on its school buses. District administrators sought to extend students’ internet access, because many students in the rural area lack home connectivity. The district covers a large geographical area of nearly 650 square miles, and some students spend up to 90 minutes one-way on a bus to school.
And once buses have wi-fi capability, they can connect students to the internet even when students are not on board. Georgia’s Liberty County School System outfitted its bus fleet with wi-fi and is creating 24 “Homework Zones” around the county by parking the Kajeet wi-fi-enabled school buses close to students. Those areas include apartment complexes and fire and police departments, and from 2:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., these “Homework Zones” will allow low-income students to access educational websites so they can continue their studies outside the classroom. During research before an iPad deployment program in 2014, the district determined approximately 60 percent of students did not have access to the internet.