T.H.E. Journal’s recent article, “Bandwidth for All,” takes a crucial look at the problems of connecting rural America to broadband. Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about the growth in overall bandwidth needs; fortunately, this is being addressed in part by the ConnectED program and its $2 billion in additional funding promised by the FCC. But for some rural schools, the program won’t be enough. Adequate broadband connections are just too expensive, and too physically difficult to establish, for ConnectED to solve the problem. It just doesn’t make financial sense for private companies to install many miles of fiber and get only limited revenue in return. Because of this, adequate broadband for rural schools will require cooperation at the state level, perhaps in the form of a state-wide network, as well as support from corporate providers.
Such concerns are strongest for rural users, but also apply to poor urban households, which often can’t afford or don’t understand the benefits of a home connection. When 28% of the nation’s homes don’t have broadband Internet, the issue extends deeper than just school access. How can we overcome that obstacle? There should be a low-cost option for less affluent homes and neighborhoods. Schools and the FCC need to provide support, education, and funding for home broadband connections before those poorer students are pushed further onto the fringes of our digital society.
I am optimistic about the ConnectED program and certainly consider it a step in the right direction. However, as we continue to fight to reform the E-rate, it’s important to note that ConnectED is not a panacea. Rural school districts, as well as poor urban students who lack broadband connections at home, may still be left behind. Further advocacy work is needed to help these populations.