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Working to overcome digital divide

August 6, 2018

This year the San Felipe Pueblo library was connected — finally — to broadband. It’s hard to overstate the impact access to high-speed internet has had on this traditional tribal community in the dry hills of Sandoval County.

For many residents of the reservation, they can head online for the first time to learn, connect with loved ones, grow their businesses and search for jobs. Libraries have indeed become a prime location for the new digital town square. For students, this is especially critical because access to online resources is now essential for basic schoolwork.

In fact, the demand at the library is so great, San Felipe Pueblo did something to accommodate the community during library off-hours: They built a porch. That means any resident can sit outside and use the wireless signal at the library to connect at any time.

There’s an undeniably scrappy charm to this effort. It demonstrates the power of being connected — not just in rural New Mexico, but everywhere. Yet it also shows how important it is to have reliable internet access for everyone, but especially students.

Today, 7 in 10 teachers assign homework that requires online access. But across the country, 1 in 3 households does not subscribe to broadband. Where those numbers overlap is a homework gap.

According to the Senate Joint Economic Committee, the homework gap is real. It affects 12 million students nationwide. In rural and tribal communities, the number of students affected is especially high. You see it on the porch in San Felipe Pueblo. You see it at fast-food restaurants where students slide into booths to do their homework with free Wi-Fi and a side of fries. You see it whenever students ask their parents to take them to the home of a friend or relative just to get online and do nightly schoolwork.

With a future that is increasingly digital, it’s time to come up with new ways to ensure no child is left offline. That brings us to school buses. These buses crisscross the roads of every state, delivering students to and from schools. In rural areas, those ride times can be especially long. So why not turn ride time into connected time for students? By installing Wi-Fi equipment on school buses, school districts can help close the digital divide.

In fact, it’s already happening. Recently, we both joined Santa Fe Public Schools students on a bus ride where the students used their drive time to learn to code. This isn’t just happening in Santa Fe. In places like Deer Trail, Colo., and Augusta, Ga., and Coachella, Calif., schools are experimenting with Wi-Fi on wheels. They are finding that connecting students ensures more equitable internet access for homework. In addition, in some districts, bus drivers are reporting that having this service on board helps with behavior. Moreover, it is possible to use wireless technology that is integrated with the school district to ensure educators can monitor and control activity while students are on board.

Now it’s time to make this commonsense extension of the classroom available nationwide. One way to do this is by updating the E-Rate program.

For two decades, the E-Rate program has been administered by the Federal Communications Commission. It helps schools and libraries across the country get online. Today, it supports broadband access in educational institutions in every state. The support is especially important for schools and libraries that serve low-income, tribal and rural areas.

That’s because students everywhere need to develop the digital skills necessary for the new economy. But it’s just as important that students have access after school for homework. With too many students in too many places falling into the homework gap, we need to upgrade the E-Rate program by extending the school classroom to the school bus. This would ensure that school districts are reimbursed by the program when they add this technology to their transportation.

To drive this change, proposals have been introduced in the Senate and House of Representatives. They deserve serious consideration. By turning ride time into connected time, we can make sure that every student, no matter who they are or where they live, has a fair shot at getting their homework done — and the opportunity for digital age success.

Jessica Rosenworcel is an FCC commissioner. U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján represents New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District.

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