$65B broadband investment could help address the digital divide

President Biden this week signed into law a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package that provides $65 billion to boost broadband access in rural areas and tribal communities. The funding could help address a persistent source of educational inequity, given that many low-income and rural college students still lack the broadband service needed to submit assignments, attend online lectures, and fully engage in their education, NPR reports.

Calling the broadband investment a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Christopher Ali, who studies internet access at the University of Virginia, told NPR that “for students who are un- and under-connected, this will hopefully make a tremendous difference.”

Related: Digital divide front and center as COVID-19 amplifies disparities >

Internet access lacking in rural, tribal areas

A March report from The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University found that at least 40 percent of college students—and likely more—had faced inadequate technology or internet access since the pandemic’s onset. That rate further climbs in tribal lands: nearly 70 percent of people living in rural tribal lands have no broadband access, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

The new infrastructure package dedicates $2 billion of its broadband funding specifically for grants administered by the federal Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program. Administrators at tribal colleges and universities say the support is much needed—both for their students at home and for their campuses, which tend to have slower, yet more expensive, internet service compared with other U.S. colleges.

Reframing broadband as a necessity

The pandemic made clear that broadband is an essential service, said Charles “Monty” Roessel, president of Diné College in Arizona, the nation’s first tribal college. With campuses throughout the Navajo Nation and students spread across 27,000 square miles, Diné encountered a number of challenges in the transition to online learning in spring 2020. “Most of our students had to go home and use their phones. So they ran out of minutes. They ran out of data. They couldn’t access anything,” said Charles “Monty” Roessel, Diné’s president.

Using federal CARES Act funds, Diné distributed Wi-Fi hotspots and laptops, upgraded its broadband speeds on campus, and built two centrally located microcampuses where students could go to connect. While the interventions helped in some cases, they weren’t a panacea, Roessel said. “We’ve got to look at the big picture and not just these little wins,” he told NPR. “There’s a larger issue here. And if we don’t address that, then that was a waste of tragedy.”

Related: Federal officials announce broadband internet discount for Pell Grant recipients >

Experts say the $65 billion infusion may not prompt immediate change, given the complexity of implementing improvements at the state and local levels. However, they are optimistic about the focus on broadband speed and access. The funding signals that internet access is “no longer a luxury” but rather “infrastructure, as essential as a paved road or a sewer system,” Ali said.

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