This piece was originally published on RealClearEducation
It is no secret that our country’s bridges, roads, railways and airports must be improved. Rebuilding our transportation infrastructure is critical to commercial and economic growth. But digital access in the internet age is just as important as the expressway needed for daily commutes and shipping goods.
Access to the “Information Highway” is essential. Yet, even today, too many American families can’t get on this road. According to a 2017 Wireless Broadband Alliance report, a troubling 23 percent of individuals and families living in urban areas, along with 28 percent in rural areas, don’t have access to or can’t afford broadband. Pew Research Center found that, overall, only 73 percent of U.S. households have broadband service.
That’s unacceptable. Such a widespread lack of access in the most technology-rich country in the world creates depressing fiscal and educational conditions for American citizens who don’t have internet. Individuals struggling to make ends meet are unable to conduct job searches when employment listings are almost exclusively online. Families can’t plug into essential banking, health or government services. Elementary, middle and high school age youth are, tragically, left behind when there is no broadband at home to complete homework assignments and school projects. That impact is disproportionally felt by economically disadvantaged people living in rural, urban and even suburban communities.
The digital divide continues and we’re not doing enough to close it.
That divide is an especially pressing challenge in American education. Pew’s analysis of U.S. Census data concluded that 31.4 percent of households with incomes below $50,000 and with children ages six to seventeen do not have a high-speed internet connection at home compared to only 8.4 percent of households with incomes exceeding $50,000. That amounts to nearly five million households with school-aged children who do not have high-speed internet at home.
The Federal Communications Commission’s most recent Broadband Progress Report notes that while access to high-speed internet in America’s schools is increasing, 41 percent of schools are not meeting the FCC’s connectivity goals. These are the schools that overwhelmingly serve financially-strapped students who don’t have internet in their homes. It’s an inequitable double-whammy for too many of our nation’s kids: no high-speed internet access at home or at school.
This leaves many students unable to take advantage of innovative, technology-based education opportunities. For example, participation rates in Advanced Placement (AP) and college-prep courses by economically-disadvantaged students who live in rural and urban areas already lag far behind their peers. Many of their schools can’t offer AP courses in the classroom, and so, for these students, the only option is to take AP courses online. But that’s impossible without broadband.
Today, many schools are integrating online education as a core component or supplement to classroom work and using computer-based platforms loaded with innovative courses, educational games and student progress reports – accessible anytime, anywhere by students and parents. That’s great, unless you are among the millions of families without internet access at home. Imagine how distressing it is for teachers to know that if they assign their class engaging computer-based lessons for homework, certain students will be left out.
Organizations are doing their part to raise awareness of this issue. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, in partnership with several other organizations, published a report titled “Broadband Imperatives for African Americans: Policy Recommendations to Increase Digital Adoption For Minorities and Their Communities,” which said, “[N]ew digital learning technologies have the capacity to increase access to education resources which would not otherwise be available to many low-income and minority communities.” The report emphasized how much high-speed internet can dramatically change the classroom experience and also enable new online education opportunities for students to learn and achieve more.
The National Black Caucus of State Legislators, one of the partnership organizations that developed the above-mentioned report, recently launched a new effort to build “Next Generation Networks,” to boost greater broadband access in cities and communities of color. Dozens of others across the political spectrum – industry organizations, education associations, trade councils, minority groups, rural communities and more – identify broadband access among their top goals.
Even though America’s political environment feels almost toxically divided right now, I’m hopeful broadband is one issue where bipartisanship and consensus can prevail. After all, voters of all backgrounds and political stripes support investing in infrastructure. The Trump Administration continues to push for a massive $1 trillion infrastructure plan. Congressional Democrats have also called for an infrastructure proposal with millions pledged to rebuild schools. The challenge is to make sure that any agreed upon infrastructure package includes investments specifically designed to make broadband technology available to under-served communities. Several pieces of legislation have been introduced by members of Congress on both sides of the aisle aimed at expanding broadband by reducing regulatory barriers and boosting public-private partnerships.
That push in Washington is also complimented by calls from state legislators to improve high-speed internet access, and from governors from both parties emphasizing how state infrastructure goals should also include expansion in broadband technology. Momentum is growing.
Broadband is absolutely critical to economic growth and educational opportunity. All Americans deserve access to it. We must continue to press policymakers to make broadband a priority and commit the necessary resources to not just close the digital divide, but eliminate it altogether.
Nate Davis is Executive Chairman of K12 Inc., a leading technology-based education company. He was previously Chief Executive Officer and President of XM Satellite Radio.