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Will America finally get internet right for rural students?

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

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

It’s one solution when 21% of homes in the district don’t have internet access — roughly 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’s gone on to college. “It’s because there’s also not the critical infrastructure in place for that to happen.”

A new plan by the federal government aims to bridge the digital divide in places like Stokes County, located minutes from the Virginia border and more than 100 miles northwest of the state capital.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law in 2021 and started last year carves out $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 extended the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which was created in 2020 to help low-income households stay connected during the COVID-19 pandemic. That benefit is now known as the Affordability Connectivity Program and offers discounted broadband service and connected devices such as as laptops, computers or tablets to eligible homes.

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

There’s a reason why new legislation focuses on broadband rollout and low-cost devices. The U.S. Office of Educational Technology has identified a lack of large-scale infrastructure — that can include anything from towers and antennas to underground fiber lines — as one of the leading barriers to internet availability.

When internet service providers put less money toward that infrastructure in low-income or marginalized areas, it’s called digital redlining, which also contributes to inaccessibility, according to the National Council on Aging.

All of this connects back to education. A study by the Quello Center for Media and Information Policy found that students who don’t have access to home-internet or instead depend on their cellphones alone are less likely to complete their homework, more likely to have a lower GPA and are less likely to have plans to complete a college education than those who are well connected.

“You can’t remain competitive or be competitive in the modern economy without internet access,” said Fulk, the Stoke County schools graduate.

In Stokes County, the four-year graduation rate is on par with the rest of the state. But the majority of schools in Stokes County have C or D grades from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, which measures school achievements and student academic growth.

Lagging internet made it frustrating for Fulk to complete assignments. He also noticed it impacting his social life.

While classmates were talking to each other on social media and making plans to hang out, Fulk could hardly watch a YouTube video and sometimes waited as many as 15 minutes for websites to load, he said. 

The economic divide became hard to ignore.

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

The tables turned when he started college and had access to a personal laptop and fiber optic internet. Fulk said he realized what people back at home were missing. In addition to social media access, Fulk was able to attend Zoom meetings and turn in his assignments online without worrying about upload speeds or a fragile connection. 

“My internet speeds with Google Fiber were 1gbps which is blazing fast and only $70 a month,” he said. “I know people back home who are paying that, or more, for slower speeds and a less reliable connection.”

It will take years to determine whether the rural internet initiatives of the infrastructure act pay off. Broadband expansion must be completed within four years after receiving funding under the new law. The construction of some projects could take longer, however, especially in areas where fiber needs to be installed, attorney Carri Bennet wrote in Broadband Communities Magazine.

There is also an issue with how the federal government determines who needs better internet access. Late last year, the Federal Communications Commission rolled out an updated but preliminary version of its national broadband map, which details where broadband is available and at what quality. The goal is to use the map to improve equitable access throughout the country.

A pair of Nevada senators wrote to the FCC, claiming its broadband map misrepresented availability and coverage quality across the state.

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

Until internet access is more evenly distributed, however, some students won’t have the means to finish assignments at the library or a nearby elementary school. That’s particularly true for families without guaranteed transportation or flexible schedules she said.

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

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