The digital divide leaves rural students behind, innovation can change that

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As students across the country head back to school this season, our policymakers in Washington need to remember that at least 6.5 million students will return to the classroom stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Today, 70 percent of teachers assign homework that requires a broadband connection, yet millions of American students do not have access to broadband service at home.

That creates a gap between those students with access at home and those without. As a former high school science teacher and coach, high school principal, assistant superintendent, a longtime advocate for rural development and executive director for the National Rural Education Association (NREA), I’ve seen firsthand the burden this homework gap places on both educators and families — and the impact on students who struggle to keep up.

Since its founding in 1907, NREA has advocated for policies to improve the quality of education in rural communities. There are few issues today that are more critical to that mission than expanding broadband connectivity in rural America.

Students living in rural communities without broadband connectivity are denied access to the same opportunities shared by their peers in well-connected suburban or urban areas. These students often struggle to keep up with assignments and are denied exposure to innovative teaching tools and platforms.

It is nearly a cliché in education policy, but educational outcomes should not be determined by a student’s ZIP code.

Broadband internet has become as critical in the classroom as a textbook and as indispensable at home as a calculator. Without broadband connectivity, kids living in rural areas are being prepared to compete in a 21st Century economy with 20th Century tools.

That is why it is so critical our policymakers in Washington act.

Fortunately, there are readily available solutions to expand broadband connectivity in rural communities and tackle the digital divide.

NREA is part of a coalition that works to raise awareness and build support behind a mixed-technology approach to eliminating the rural broadband gap.

Connect Americans Now (CAN) is a coalition as an actionable plan to close the digital divide over the next five years with an all-of-the-above approach, leveraging innovative solutions like TV white space (TVWS) technology.

TVWS technology is already deployed in networks nationwide on the front lines of tackling the digital divide.

In Garrett County, Md., a partnership between Declaration Networks Group and Microsoft brought broadband connectivity to Swan Meadow School using TVWS.

Swan Meadow is a three-room school nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and as math teacher Arlene Lantz explained in a recent CAN video, educators at the school “could never all get online here together, we had no internet connection.”

TV white space technology changed that for the kids at Swan Meadow — it can change that for millions more kids at school and at home.

Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took several critical steps forward to remove the regulatory barriers holding TVWS back from larger-scale deployment by providers in rural areas.

While I applaud the FCC for taking that key step and for supporting a number of other important efforts to expand broadband access, we now need the commission to finish the job.

That is why the NREA joined Connect Americans Now and 24 other organizations in asking the FCC to issue a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to clear the remaining regulatory hurdles to unleashing the full potential of TVWS.

By taking up this rulemaking procedure and supporting innovation, the FCC can help completely eliminate the digital divide and bring connectivity to those kids in rural areas who desperately need it.

In today’s digital age, students from all ZIP codes, rural and urban, deserve equal opportunities to succeed in their education. As a nation, we must ensure all students are given the proper tools for success, with access to a broadband connection being among the most necessary. 

For the millions of students embarking on a new year of growth and learning on the wrong side of the digital divide — we need to act. 

Dr. Allen Pratt is the executive director of the National Rural Education Association.

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