How state and local governments can close the digital divide in education with fast, affordable connectivity

Education has long served as the key to unlocking economic progress and social mobility. However, unequal access to digital tools has created a large gap between children who have access to fast, reliable internet connectivity in school and at home and those who don’t.

The internet has become an important channel for delivering learning, with many teachers incorporating online applications into classroom instruction. Some teachers use software to monitor student work, allowing them to spot problems sooner and provide extra help to those who need it. At home, students need the internet to complete assignments and work on collaborative projects. 

“We know that access to the internet is essential for learning. No matter where students live, it is critical for conducting research, doing homework, and, when school buildings are closed, attending class,” National Education Association President Becky Pringle has said.   

Nearly 17 million children-many of whom are underprivileged or live in rural areas – lack adequate internet access at home. And nearly half attend schools that do not meet the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) connectivity benchmark of 1 Mbps per student. 

The digital divide will only grow worse as AI and immersive technologies take on a greater role in education. Interactive lessons and videos reinforce lessons by engaging children through their senses.  AI algorithms help personalize learning, suggesting settings and resources that suit the individual needs as students work. In addition, students need to become adept at using AI and other internet tools to thrive in higher education and in the workplace.

Closing the digital divide may require resources and expertise beyond the means of many school systems. Engaging in public-private partnerships can make a big difference, as the Rock Island Milan School District in Illinois learned during the pandemic.

When schools shut down, nearly 80% of the Rock Island district’s students had no access to home internet. Working with Source, Inc., Cradlepoint, and Verizon, the district obtained devices and WiFi routers, quickly deploying them in school buildings and homes throughout the district. The entire project took just three weeks to complete.

To continue their schoolwork, students simply plugged in their devices and connected to the district’s network. Their preconfigured routers contain a built-in path to 5G connectivity, preparing them for future AI and immersive learning applications.

As 5G networks evolve, they are expected to handle 10 to 100 times more capacity than 4G systems. That could someday make augmented and virtual reality applications a regular part of the curriculum. Schools can attain the speed, low latency, and reliability they need to offer these capabilities to all students – even those in rural areas – with 5G fixed wireless business internet service.

Because it doesn’t require cables or fiber to be installed in every home, 5G wireless broadband internet is available at a reasonable cost virtually anywhere. Schools that wish to avoid connection to the public internet may want to consider a private 5G network, which enables the use of advanced access and security controls.

By providing fast, reliable, secure, and cost-effective 5G connectivity for all, schools can close the digital divide and help prepare students for a technologically advanced future. Districts may apply for federal funding for modernizing their technology through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).