Access to high-speed internet and digital devices is imperative for students to succeed in a world impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. As many schools opt for fully-remote or hybrid instruction, students have an increased need for high-speed internet access in their own homes. High-speed internet has become as necessary to school as meals, transportation, and electricity. Unfortunately, access to high-speed internet is not universal, and lack of access disproportionately impacts rural and low-income students.
According to data from both the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Census Bureau compiled by Broadbandnow.com, about 88.6% of all Alabamians have access to high-speed internet, defined as internet with download speeds of 25 megabits per second (mbps) or faster. This leaves about 475,000 people in Alabama without access to high-speed internet, including large swaths of rural Alabama. Nine of Alabama’s 67 counties have less than 30% access to broadband, all of which are counties in Alabama’s rural Black Belt, some of which have poverty rates of greater than 30%. Alternatively, the US census bureau estimates only 73.3% of households subscribed to broadband internet between 2014-2018, showing that even if a household has access to broadband, they may not be able to afford it.
*Areas in yellow represent the definition of unserved as defined by the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act (ABAA). From ADECA
The number of Alabama school districts moving to remote learning continues to increase. This week, State Superintendent Eric Mackey reported to Governor Ivey’s COVID-19 Task Force that more than 30 of Alabama’s 142 school districts have elected to start remotely – including 6 of the 7 largest districts in the state (see all district plans here). Additionally, a recent national poll found that Black families, more likely to be affected by the COVID-19 virus, overwhelmingly support keeping instruction online. The persistence of the pandemic coupled with increased health risks requires rapid and bold solutions to conquer the digital divide.
Current Investments Expanding Broadband Access
To address the immediate need for high-speed internet, some districts across the state equipped school buses to provide WiFi hotspots in communities. Others partnered with public libraries and local businesses to offer students free WiFi. Many districts purchased digital devices for students, yet ran into logistical delays while trying to get the devices into the hands of students prior to the start of the school year. These strategies helped meet an immediate need for some families, but are not a permanent solution.
Prior to the current pandemic, the Alabama Legislature passed the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act in 2018 with the goal of expanding high-speed internet access to rural areas with little-to-no broadband infrastructure. To date, this grant program has funded about 15 projects in rural areas. As this program expands, more communities will have better infrastructure to support high-speed internet, but it will take time and more resources.
Last month, Governor Ivey allocated $100 million in federal CARES Act funding for school districts to purchase digital devices. The governor also announced the allocation of an additional $100 million in federal CARES Act funding to launch the Alabama Broadband Connectivity (ABC) for Students program. Any family who qualifies for free or reduced lunch will receive a voucher in the mail which can be used to set up high-speed internet in their homes for free through the end of 2020. Click here to learn more about the ABC for Students program and to see if you qualify.
More local dollars are being committed to improve access and infrastructure as well. On Friday, the Housing Authority of Birmingham’s Board of Commissioners approved $495,000 to build WiFi infrastructure in its public housing communities. The board also approved spending $150,000 for 500 computers. This investment is a positive example that could be replicated across the state.
Barriers Still Exist
Counties with Little-to-No Access at All: Some rural counties have less than 30% access, and Perry County has less than 1% access. As of June 2020, Perry County has not been chosen as a project for Alabama’s Broadband Accessibility Act. Without any broadband infrastructure at all in these counties, getting high-speed internet into the home of any student there is a difficult task.
Internet That is Too Slow: Approximately 475,000 Alabamians do not have internet access with download speeds of 25 megabits per second (mbps) or faster. In order for a student to actively participate in online learning and video conferencing, these speeds are a must.
Cost: According to Broadbandnow.com, for an internet plan to qualify as “low-priced,” it must cost $60 or less per month. They estimate that only 44% of Alabamians have access to a low-priced plan. While installation vouchers through the ABC for Students program will be a great help to families through the end of 2020, month-to-month subscription costs can still be a barrier for low-income and rural families to maintain their internet connection during remote schooling after these vouchers expire.
Access to a Digital Device: Even with high-speed internet access in their homes, students still need access to a digital device to connect to the internet and participate in remote learning. According to national survey data, low-income students are three times as likely to not have consistent access to a device compared to families earning $100,000+ a year. Only 24% of teachers reported that all of their students had access to a computer or tablet to do their school work.
Creating Great Schools for Every Child Requires High-Speed Internet Access
Even before COVID-19 upended traditional schooling and business practices, high-speed internet had become a necessary utility and no longer a luxury. Whether in education or economic development, access to high-speed internet is critical to the future of our state. We must continue working to ensure that every student, regardless of zip code, can access high-speed internet–especially as many schools continue with fully-remote learning in the Fall.
Continued investment in broadband infrastructure from both the Alabama Legislature and Congress will be necessary. Local leaders and school district leaders will need to prioritize the expansion of broadband in their communities. As lawmakers continue to address this issue, A+ Education Partnership will advocate for significant investment in broadband infrastructure on behalf of Alabama’s students.