Will America finally get internet right for rural students?

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

“Approach the building,” read the instructions for connecting to the YMCA’s Internet. Another option is network blocks near the local fire station.

That’s one solution when 21% of households in the state don’t have internet — nearly three times the national average, according to a 2019 Pew Research study..

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

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

The Infrastructure Investment and Works Act was signed into law in 2021 and it started last year with $65 billion for broadband infrastructure to bring high-speed internet to the 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 Broadband Benefit Program, established in 2020 to help low-income families stay connected during the COVID-19 pandemic. The benefit is now known as The Affordability Connectivity Program and provides discounted internet services 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 more broadband development across the state.

There’s a reason why the new law focuses on the rollout of broadband and low-cost devices. The US Office of Educational Technology has identified a lack of major infrastructure – which can include anything from towers and antennas to underground cables – as one of the potential obstacles in the topic of network availability.

When Internet service providers set aside a small amount of money for those services in low-income or disadvantaged areas, it’s called digital redlining, which contributes to inaccessibility, according to the National Council of Aging.

All these are related to education. Research conducted by the Quello Center for Media and Information Policy found that students who do not have access to the internet at home or instead rely on their cell phones alone, are less likely to complete their work of homework, the more likely you are to have a lower GPA and the less likely you are. having plans to complete a college education than those who are well connected.

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“You can’t stay competitive or compete in today’s economy without access to the internet,” said Fulk, a Stoke County school student.

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 Instruction, which measures school effectiveness and student growth.

A lagging network made it difficult for Fulk to complete assignments. He also realized that it affected his social life.

While his classmates were chatting on social media and making plans to hang out, Fulk couldn’t watch a YouTube video and sometimes waited up to 15 minutes for websites to load. control them.

The economic divide became difficult to ignore.

“When I visited their home, (they) had a whole wireless modem/router and they had faster speeds than I had,” Fulk said.

The tables turned when he started college and was able to get his own laptop and fiber optic internet. Fulk said he realized what his people were missing. Without access to social media, Fulk was able to attend Zoom meetings and deliver his assignments online without worrying about upload speed 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 who pay that much, or more, for slow speeds and unreliable connections.”

It will take years to determine whether the infrastructure law’s rural internet efforts are fruitful.. Broadband expansion must be completed within four years of receiving funding under the new law. Construction of some projects may take longer, however, especially in areas where fiber is needed, attorney Carri Bennet wrote in Broadband Communities Magazine.

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There is also the issue of how the federal government decides who needs good internet access. Late last year, the Federal Communications Commission released an updated but preliminary version of its national broadband map, which details where broadband is available and at what cost. The goal is to use the map to improve equitable access across the country.

Nevada senators wrote 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 they were before the outbreak, said Karen Barker, director of information and technology for Stokes County Schools. This is largely due to online services available through government programs such as the Emergency Connectivity Fund, which has helped schools and libraries distribute distance learning resources, Barker said.

Until Internet access is more evenly distributed, however, some students will not have the means to complete assignments at the nearest library or elementary school. That’s especially true for families who don’t have guaranteed transportation or a convenient schedule.

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

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