Opinion

America’s Students Need Broadband Access Now

In today’s environment, broadband access is a critical component of a high-quality education. Unfortunately, more than 14 million Americans still lack access to high-speed broadband, including many students who live in rural areas where nearly 1 in 5 Americans are still on the wrong side of the digital divide. That’s far too many students who are unable to access the high-tech educational tools and resources needed to thrive in the 21st-century classroom and, ultimately, join America’s workforce.  

Research has shown the vast implications that broadband access can have on students; not only are students with broadband access more likely to earn high school and college degrees, but they are expected to earn over $2 million more throughout their lifetimes. 

As the voice of rural schools and communities, our goal at the National Rural Education Association is simple: We work to ensure that all students, regardless of ZIP code, have access to a quality education. We do this by advocating at the local, state and national levels for the highest quality educational resources to bring about the most effective educational experience for children in rural areas. This increasingly includes improving rural education delivery systems using distance education technology, which relies on the expansion of broadband access. 

Fortunately, our national elected officials have demonstrated an understanding of the urgency to bridge our nation’s digital divide. For example, the recent Senate passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which includes a $65 billion investment in broadband – in addition to the billions of dollars already appropriated to support broadband – will go a long way toward not only supporting broadband deployment in unserved rural areas of the country, but also helping low-income rural families and students adopt broadband services and increase digital literacy. 

While we were glad to see the broad bipartisan support for this broadband investment, we know that our work – and the work of Congress – is far from complete. Financial resources are critical, but it’s also clear that it will require more than just money to increase connectivity across the country. Connecting these “last-mile” rural communities will also require smart policies that make certain these investments in broadband infrastructure are maximized for actual and timely deployment so that our truly unserved students and communities receive broadband access without delay. This includes pole access reform. 

The complex and costly process for broadband providers to attach to utility poles is one of the single greatest barriers to rural broadband deployment. Pole owners – such as utility companies, cooperatives and municipalities – often impose unnecessarily complex requirements and potentially unfair fees for broadband providers to attach cables to these poles that allow for connectivity. These demands often lead to disputes that slow and shift resources away from deploying broadband.  

The Progressive Policy Institute recently found that the cost of managing pole attachment regulations and fees cuts overall broadband deployment by up to 55 percent. In the end, it’s the rural students without broadband access who are hurt the most because every excess dollar spent by a broadband provider to gain access to a pole is a dollar that cannot be spent on building out broadband for more families. 

Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) have recognized the critical need for pole access reform to ensure that broadband funds are used most efficiently and effectively, but we need more members of Congress to join them to help eliminate this significant barrier to deploying broadband to all our nation’s rural students. 

For rural students, reliable high-speed internet access means the difference between being able to attend classes and complete assignments or having to travel miles to the parking lots of public libraries and fast-food restaurants just to get connected. 

We must close this homework gap for our rural students and pole access reform must be part of any solution to ensure these students have reliable access to broadband – and all the opportunities that it provides. 

                             

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

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