Will America finally get Internet rights for rural students?

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

“Get close to the building,” reads the instructions for connecting to your local YMCA’s Internet. Another option is a few blocks of internet near the local fire station.

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

“It’s not because they don’t want to,” said Taylor Fulk, a former student at the college. “It also has to do with the lack of critical infrastructure for that to happen.”

The federal government’s new plan aims to close the digital divide in places like Stokes County, just minutes from the Virginia border and 100 miles northwest of the state capital.

The Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act was signed in 2021 and launched last year, allocating $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. This benefit is now known as the Affordable Connection Program and offers discounted broadband service and connected devices such as laptops, computers or tablets to eligible homes.

Through the Infrastructure Act, North Carolina, which has the second-largest rural population in the nation, will receive at least $100 million to support additional broadband development throughout the state.

There’s a reason the new legislation focuses on broadband and low-cost devices. The U.S. Educational Technology Administration has identified a lack of large-scale infrastructure—which can include everything from towers and antennas to underground fiber lines—as one of the main barriers to Internet availability.

According to the National Council on Aging, when Internet providers put less money into that infrastructure in low-income or marginalized areas, it’s called digital redlining, which contributes to unaffordability.

It’s all about re-education. A study by the Quello Center for Media and Information Policy found that students without home Internet access or instead relying solely on their cell phones were less likely to complete homework, more likely to have a lower GPA, and less likely to showed. more likely to have plans to complete college than those who are well connected.

“You can’t be competitive or competitive in today’s economy without access to the Internet,” said Fulk, a graduate of Stokes County schools.

Stokes County’s 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 achievement and student academic growth.

Lagging internet made it frustrating for Fulk to complete tasks. He also noticed that it affected his social life.

While his classmates chatted with each other on social media and made plans to hang out, Fulk could barely watch a YouTube video and sometimes waited 15 minutes for websites to load.

It became difficult to ignore the economic abyss.

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

That changed when I started college and had a personal laptop and access to fiber optic internet. Fulk said he understands what people at home are missing. In addition to accessing social media, Fulk was able to attend Zoom meetings and submit assignments online without worrying about download speeds or fragile connections.

“My internet speed with Google Fiber was 1 gbps, which is very fast and only $70 a month,” he said. “I know people at home who pay that much or more for slower speeds and a less reliable connection.”

It will take years to determine whether the infrastructure act’s rural internet initiatives are paying off. Broadband expansion must be completed within four years of receiving funding under the new law. Some projects may take longer to build, especially in areas where fiber needs to be installed, attorney Carri Bennett wrote in Broadband Communities Magazine.

There’s also the issue of how the federal government determines who needs better Internet access. Late last year, the Federal Communications Commission released an updated but preliminary version of its broadband internet map detailing where broadband is available and at what quality. The aim is to use the map to improve equal access across the country.

A pair of Nevada senators wrote to the FCC, alleging that its broadband map misrepresents the availability and quality of coverage in the state.

As for Stokes County, schools are better connected than they were before the pandemic, said Karen Barker, director of media and technology for Stokes County Schools. That’s partly because of internet service available through federal programs like the Emergency Connectivity Fund, which helps schools and libraries distribute distance learning tools, Barker said.

Until Internet access is more evenly distributed, some students will not be able to complete assignments at the library or nearby elementary school. This is especially true for families without guaranteed transportation or flexible schedules.

“If high-speed Internet were widely available and affordable, it would be a level playing field for all students,” Barker said.

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