High school students in the small mountain town of Sylva have been going to extreme lengths to find an adequate place to complete their schoolwork. Because they don’t have broadband at home, these students—and thousands like them in rural North Carolina—roam their towns, searching for an internet signal so they can learn.
“I have seen students sitting in their cars doing their homework trying to find somewhere with an internet signal,” Sylva Mayor Lynda Sossamon said at a press conference last week.
Just 35% of households in Jackson County, home to Sylva, have access to high-speed internet, according to the group Broadband Now, which advocates for equitable broadband access.
Several state representatives who are co-sponsoring a new measure, House Bill 1122, framed broadband access as an equity issue. “A child living in Ashe County ought to have the same access to educational online materials as any other child ought to have,” said Rep. Ray Russell (D-Ashe, Watauga).
“How can we claim to be providing every child with their constitutional right to a sound, basic education without internet in their homes?” said Rep. Rachel Hunt (D-Mecklenburg). Like pencil and paper, internet is a “basic need,” Hunt said, “and must be available and affordable.”
Last year, Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law a bill that allowed electric cooperatives to seek federal funds to provide broadband to rural North Carolinians. But another bill that would have taken broadband access a step further, the FIBER NC Act, stalled in committee. This bill would have given local governments the authority to build infrastructure for broadband and lease it to private corporations, in what is called a public-private partnership.
Now HB 1122 is aiming to finish what the FIBER NC Act started. “This bill covers the homework gap,” said Rep. Joe Sam Queen (D-Jackson, Haywood, Swain), referring to the occurrence in which students are assigned homework requiring internet access but cannot access the internet at home.
In years past, private telecom corporations have used their influence at the General Assembly to block legislation that would have helped municipalities to become internet service providers.
Gov. Cooper has made closing this gap one of his priorities; earlier this year, he proclaimed February 27 Digital Learning Day and addressed the homework gap in his proclamation.
HB 1122, if passed, would enact myriad measures to bridge the “digital divide,” including appropriating funds for a pilot program, called the “Homework Gap Initiative,” that would provide services to teachers and students and provide Wi-Fi on school buses. HB 1122 also authorizes public-private partnerships to bring broadband to unserved and underserved areas in rural North Carolina. Some of the wording of the bill is directly taken from last year’s FIBER NC Act.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the level of reliance we have on the internet and the number of uses to which it has come to be applied have both skyrocketed. People use the internet to shop, complete schoolwork and access life-saving medicine. But even before the global health crisis, 68% of rural Americans used the internet to obtain health information. And while broadband access in rural areas has been a problem for years, the pandemic has exacerbated the issue.
After schools and universities were forced to rapidly shift to online instruction in mid-March, teachers and students reported difficulties with internet service. This underscored the urgency of ensuring all North Carolinians can access high-speed internet, especially considering that the COVID-19 relief bill that Gov. Cooper signed into law earlier this month requires public schools to develop a plan for remote instruction for the upcoming 2020-2021 school year.
Students have already been forced to learn via remote instruction since March 15, causing college students to take final exams online and making this the 11th week of online learning for high school students, who finished their AP exams last week.
For students without reliable internet access, that is 11 weeks without a consistent education. Even if students return to in-person classes in the fall, approximately 10% of those students will have missed out on the education their peers received, resulting in a huge gap in learning.
Broadband “is not an optional piece of infrastructure,” said Russell at last week’s press conference.
“The current pandemic has shown that we need to get this done now,” said Rep. Scott Brewer (D-Montgomery, Richmond, Stanly).
“We need universal broadband in North Carolina,” said Queen.
HB 1122 was referred to the House Committee on Rules last week.