Opinion

Washington Must Back Innovation to Close the Rural Homework Gap

Millions of American students are several months into the swing of a new school year and many are experiencing new opportunities to grow, learn and share new ideas. But not all.

Too many of the more than 9 million students living in rural areas are falling behind their peers in suburban and urban areas and sacrificing their quality of life while trying to keep up due to a lack of broadband internet connectivity at home.

We made huge strides in bringing broadband connectivity to America’s schools and libraries through the ConnectED program in the last administration, when I served at the U.S. Department of Education. We helped revolutionize and transform the way students learn and access information, ensuring the current and future generations are well-positioned to be competitive in a global marketplace.

As our digital world continues to grow more complex and reliant on high-speed internet and technology, broadband connectivity in schools is not enough.

In 21st century classrooms, as many as 70 percent of teachers currently give homework requiring a broadband connection to research, complete and submit assignments. This “homework gap” threatens to leave behind millions of students in rural areas who lack access to broadband internet to their homes.

Many parents are forced to take burdensome steps, like late-night and early-morning trips to fast food restaurants where free Wi-Fi is available, just so children can complete their schoolwork. The struggle to overcome the homework gap impacts the quality of life for the whole family. For non-traditional families and those where parents work late shifts, even these options are not available to help students keep up.

Beyond the struggle to keep pace with homework and studying, a lack of broadband access creates opportunity gaps, separating young people in rural areas from the same opportunities to learn, expand their horizons and engage the world in ways readily available to their peers in fully connected communities.

Every day the digital divide persists, Washington is failing students and families living in rural areas without access to broadband connectivity at home.

Fortunately, American innovators and internet providers are on the front lines of working to lower costs and surpass barriers to expanding broadband connectivity, even in areas with low population densities and challenging terrain.

In my home state of Maryland, Microsoft and internet provider Declaration Networks Group partnered to deploy mixed-technology networks to bring broadband connectivity to previously unserved and underserved communities.

One of these rural places is Garrett County, a tight-knit community in the westernmost corner of our state. Garrett is Maryland’s third-least populated county, nestled among the Allegheny Mountains with beautiful landscapes and a challenging topography to deploy traditional broadband technologies.

By deploying a mixed-technology network, utilizing fiber alongside innovative wireless solutions like TV white spaces, Microsoft and Declaration Networks Group are bringing high-speed internet service to 65,000 people living in Garrett County, Md., and the rural eastern shore of Virginia.

Connect Americans Now, a coalition of over 200 organizations dedicated to eliminating the digital divide, documented the compelling stories of Garrett County residents, teachers and small business owners on video to show what broadband connectivity means for their rural community.

A fifth-generation farmer is able to modernize his operation and stay competitive. A small, three-room public school is able to bring the world to its students, a senior living on a fixed-income takes advantage of telemedicine solutions and local shop owners are able to strengthen their small businesses.

Microsoft, working in partnership with internet providers through its Rural Airband Initiative, has similarly brought connectivity to rural communities in over a dozen states. But to fully connect every rural community, Washington simply must act.

The Federal Communications Commission made tackling the digital divide a top priority. But the commission can do more to support innovative deployments throughout rural America by unleashing the full potential of TVWS technology.

The commission took commendable, bipartisan action earlier this year to ensure sufficient spectrum would be available for broadband deployments using TVWS.

The FCC can build on that progress by issuing a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to clear the remaining regulatory hurdles to TVWS detailed in comments made by CAN and co-signed by 25 additional organizations earlier this year.

Policymakers can increase the pace and scale of mixed-technology deployments to more successfully tackle the digital divide in rural areas. Millions of students and their families currently disadvantaged by the homework gap are counting on it.

John White is the former deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach at the U.S. Department of Education and was chief of staff at the Maryland Department of Education.

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