May 7, 2020
Updated: June 3, 2021
Inequities in Internet Access
States are now on scalable connections. These developments are great news for students and educators as they integrate internet and technological resources to enhance learning – in the classroom. Since March 2020, however, the COVID-19 pandemic (pandemic) has illustrated an issue – that many students lack access to the internet outside of the classroom. Though an already pressing problem, the inequities we see in broadband access are exacerbated when students must learn remotely. The term used to describe this issue is known as the “digital divide,” which is defined as the gulf between those who have ready access to the internet, and those who do not.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines broadband as internet with a minimum download speed of 25 Mbps and a minimum upload speed of 3 Mbps. Currently, the FCC estimates that 97 percent of Americans in urban areas have access to high-speed internet compared to 65 percent in rural areas and 60 percent on tribal lands. According to the FCC, nearly 30 million people in the United States do not have access to broadband connectivity, including 16.9 million children in 8.4 million households. Roughly 13 percent of the nation’s households with children live in rural areas, and two out of every five of these households do not have high-speed internet service.
As students make their way back to the classroom, they will enter an educational environment increasingly dominated by technology, and for students to succeed in and out of the classroom, they must have access to high-speed broadband services and technological devices.
Federal Action to Close the Digital Divide
Important steps have been taken at the federal level to close the digital divide. In early 2021, Congress directed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to establish the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which provides a monthly discount of up to $50 for broadband service per eligible household and up to $75 a month if the eligible household is on tribal lands. The $3.2 billion program is set to last for up to six months after the conclusion of the COVID-19 pandemic or until funds are exhausted. The program became operational on May 12th.
Additionally, the federal government is calling for the private sector to play an increasingly prominent role in closing the digital divide. In May 2021, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr called for Big Tech firms, such as Netflix, Disney+, and Amazon, to invest more in closing the digital divide so that taxes showing up on monthly internet bills decrease. When making this call, Carr offered several ideas for how Big Tech can contribute an equitable amount of investment in closing the digital divide, first by asking that Congress pass legislation requiring that Big Tech make those equitable contributions. Carr also suggested that Congress develop an annual appropriation.
Congressional officials introduced legislation in spring 2021 calling for increased federal investment in broadband. In March, Senator Amy Klobuchar and House Majority Whip James Clyburn introduced the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, which would invest in the construction of high-speed broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved communities if the bill is successful in Congress.
State Action: Considerations for Policymakers and Education Leaders
Though the federal government can play a significant role in broadband expansion, the heavy lift in this expansion will be left to states, and for the past year, broadband expansion has been a top-of-mind issue for lawmakers, and legislative activity has reflected such.
In the 2021 legislative session, 47 states have pending legislation addressing broadband in multiple issue areas, including education. For states to pass and implement broadband that will work for students and families, the sharing and distribution of ideas and best-practices will be critical. Below are options for policymakers to consider as they work to meet the needs of all students, as well as approaches being taken by states to cater to students with limited broadband and/or technological access.
Ease restrictions on municipal networks. In areas of the country where private competition has not met the needs of communities, local governments developed their own solutions through the development of community broadband. In the 2021 session, five states introduced legislation aiming to remove barriers to municipal broadband:
Encourage state leaders to use state and federal funds to fully or partially subsidize broadband expenses for low-income households. The recently passed American Rescue Plan authorizes sizeable broadband investments, including nine provisions that provide about $388.1 billion in flexible funding. Digital equity is a top priority in the ARP. The ARP Connectivity Fund and the ARP Capital Projects Fund, along with the Consolidation Appropriations Act’s Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, set aside funding for digital equity policies, amounting to over $20 billion.
Pass legislation to address increasing costs faced by broadband providers. Doing so could help providers save dollars for broadband expansion efforts, especially in rural and underserved communities. In New York, bill A02396A, if passed, would address those increasing costs by streamlining the contract process broadband providers must endure when expanding service. Under current law, broadband providers must negotiate to use each utility pole individually before expanding services.
Improve the federal mapping system to accurately identify broadband access in rural areas. The current Census block methodology used by the FCC does not accurately capture the realities of access in rural areas where the blocks cover larger geographic areas, and often overstates coverage.
Develop public and private partnerships to leverage public funds in order to build the infrastructure necessary to expand broadband access in rural regions. Current federal funds include the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) ReConnect program, the USDA Rural Utilities Service’s Telecommunications Programs, and the FCC’s Connect America Fund and Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. For example, Michigan providers received $22.5 million from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Broadband ReConnect Program to expand broadband access to rural and underserved areas.
Invest in community-owned, multi-user network infrastructure. Electric cooperatives have the infrastructure and the community investment to lead broadband expansion in rural areas. The Greenlight program in Wilson, North Carolina has achieved universal access to broadband for every home and business within the corporate limits of the city. A study found that Greenlight resulted in a savings of $1 million each year to the community due to lower prices from the introduction of competition.
Develop digital literacy programs to utilize when expanding broadband coverage. Simply providing broadband access does not guarantee parents and students have the skills to use it to maximize student learning. Digital inclusion for traditionally underserved and disconnected communities is a necessary component of bridging the digital divide.
Legislate technology accommodations for remote learning. In Minnesota, state law requires that districts that wish to have “e-learning days” in lieu of school closures submit implementation plans to the Minnesota Department of Education. A plan submitted by a district will not be approved unless it has accommodations in place for both online instruction and for children and families with restricted and/or no internet access. Each student’s teacher must be accessible via online instruction or by telephone. An “e-learning” day, as stated by statute 120A.414, is “…a school day where a school offers full access to online instruction provided by students’ individual teachers due to inclement weather.”
Establish grant programs to assist districts in boosting their distance learning, broadband, and technological infrastructure. In Mississippi, the state established the Mississippi Pandemic Response Broadband Availability Grant Program, designed to provide financial support via grants to districts, Native American tribal schools, and independent schools to expand broadband in underserved areas of the state. In Texas, the Texas Education Agency’s Instructional Continuity Grant provides funding for supplemental resources to increase districts’ capacity to facilitate instructional continuity and distance, remote and/or virtual learning for campuses. District awards range from $10,500 and $220,000, based on the number of identified schools.