Innovations in Education: Closing the Digital Divide
This week on Innovations in Education, our focus was on closing the digital divide to bring more broadband access to rural and low-income Kentuckians. The Prichard Committee has been working since May to educate Kentucky lawmakers and members of Congress about the educational, healthcare, and economic impact of the digital divide, and this was our second conversation on this topic. In our first conversations we defined the problem – that 60.7% of Kentuckians do not have access to affordable internet (under $60/month) and 18.2% of Kentuckians do not have access to fast enough speeds (25 mbps) to effectively participate in school and work (watch that conversation here). The second conversation was solutions-oriented.
“Having more Kentuckians who have internet access means more of our citizens can work remotely – having an immediate impact on our economy,” said Prichard Committee President & CEO Brigitte Blom Ramsey. “Having more students with internet access means they will be better prepared for the jobs of the future. From being able to order food and retail products online, to accessing online healthcare, to the having the ability to work and learn at home, internet access is crucial.”
During Innovations, Ramsey spoke with the following internet service providers about broadband connectivity throughout the Commonwealth:
- Ellen Call, the director of state governmentaffairs for Charter Communications in Louisville. She is also a former member of the Prichard Committee.
- Leslye Krampe, the Commercial Accounts & Economic Development Specialist for Kenergy Corporation, a customer owned non-profit energy cooperative in Henderson, Kentucky.
- Keith Gabbard, the CEO and General Manager of Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative in Jackson and Owsley Counties.
- Jamie Link, the Executive Director of the Kentucky Communications Network Authority (KCNA), which manages and oversees the Commonwealth’s open-access broadband network, KentuckyWired.
According to data from an analysis by Common Sense Media and the Boston Consulting Group, 36% of Kentucky students lack adequate internet, as well as 10% of teachers.
“This is an equity issue, it is not a partisan issue. People in rural areas deserve the same reliable access to broadband of those in urban areas. There’s no color or no dollar amount attached to this,” said Link.
COVID-19 has exacerbated this digital divide issue, as more Kentuckians are now working remotely and taking online classes. From our youngest learners to our college students, access to the internet is now an imperative. We recently hosted a social media campaign asking Kentuckians to send their own letters to Congress – resulting in nearly 500 messages being sent. You can send your own message here.
“We have so much inequity already, and when you layer COVID on top of that, and this need to provide remote education, it’s just exacerbating all of these equity issues that we already have,” said Call. “There are thousands and thousands of children who will fall behind if we don’t get this right as soon as August. We don’t have any time.”
Call says that the problem of the digital divide must be broken into two parts to find adequate solutions.
“The urban problem and the rural access problem require two different approaches. In urban areas, the barrier is most often the cost to the consumer,” she said. “In rural areas, the barrier is the cost for providers to build access to remote areas.”
Gabbard said his company serves two of the poorest counties in the U.S. – Jackson and Owsley counties.
“People’s Rural completed a project in 2014 that provides and all-fiber broadband access to all homes for as low as $40 per month. We’re always looking for federal and state grants to reduce costs, and we inform our people about them when cost-savings are available. We also have a program for school kids for as low as $10 per month so almost anyone can afford it.”
Krampe said that for every dollar that is invested in reliable internet, it reaps the benefits of $4 to $5.
“It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” she said. “We’re looking for help at the state level, we need electric co-ops to get into the non-regulated business of broadband. Any support that we can get for rural communities is very much appreciated.”
- Internet service providers like Spectrum and Peoples’ Rural are providing extremely low-cost options to help low income families access broadband for school and work. For example, Spectrum Internet Assist is open to families with kids on the school lunch program and is $18 per month.
- In rural and urban areas, businesses are offering free wi-fi hotspots in parking lots so parents and students can park and access the internet. Those business then partner with schools to get the word out about availability.
- Kenergy is encouraging state lawmakers to consider legislation so that electric cooperatives can start delivering broadband services.
- Providers are also encouraging programs like LIHEAP that subsidize internet access for low income families.
- KyWired is constructing over 3,000 miles of high-speed, high-capacity fiber optic cable in every county in Kentucky. The KentuckyWired network is a “middle mile” project connecting government offices, universities, community colleges, state police posts, state parks, and other government institutions to the global internet. Anywhere along its path, Internet Service Providers will be able to connect to the network and bring faster, more reliable internet to every corner of the Commonwealth.
- One possible funding vehicle is the federal E-Rate program, which has historically made internet funding affordable for schools and libraries. The E-Rate program has also allowed Kentucky’s schools to upgrade their internal networks and provide students with Wi-Fi access in their classrooms. Funding for internet access could also come through another coronavirus relief package, similar to the CARES Act.
Join us on Innovations in Education next week as we talk about what back-to-school will look like in Kentucky amid the pandemic. Panelists will include Rockcastle County Schools Superintendent Carrie Ballinger, Ballard County Schools Superintendent Casey Allen, Fayette County Success Academy Principal Dr. Janice Wyatt-Ross, Kentucky School Boards Association Government Affairs Director Eric Kennedy, and Southern Regional Education Board President Dr. Stephen Pruitt.