Earlier this year, amid a fierce legal battle, it appeared that school districts across Idaho were about to lose broadband internet access.

Luckily, schools secured individual contracts after the statewide system was disbanded. But the scare shed light on the need for good internet access in schools. Educators, students, and parents had braced for a strain on communications, changes to lesson plans, a lack of access to online information, and an inability to take standardized tests.

Shoddy or unaffordable connectivity is a constant for many American school systems. A three-part series in Education Week shows how rural public schools are struggling to provide basic internet access to their 12 million students.

In some cases, geographic isolation makes it hard and expensive to run high-speed lines to schools. Large telecommunications companies see little value in serving tiny populations. Local companies step in—often taking advantage of market dominance to charge inflated rates.

Take two western New Mexico campuses featured in the Education Week story. The schools share 22 megabits per second of bandwidth (mbps), for which a regional carrier charges them $3,700 a month. The same speed would cost most American schools $550, according to Education Week.

At one school it takes a teacher 30 minutes to enter 15 students’ names in the digital attendance system.
Or consider a district in Calhoun County, Mississippi, where a single wire brought the school system 1.5 mbps (the average connection speed in the United States is 11.9 mbps). When the schools bought new computers with federal stimulus money, the infrastructure could not support them. Their service providers added three mbps for an additional $5,000 per month, but little improved. It still takes a teacher 30 minutes to enter 15 students’ names in the digital attendance system. An administrator described the “gut-wrenching” feeling of watching students trying to take a standardized test and running out of time because the video-based questions and online calculators would not load.

Students who lack regular internet access don’t have the same opportunities as their national peers. As traditional rural industries experience hardships, economic and academic mobility require digital proficiency.

Clemmie Jean Weddle, a 17-year-old Calhoun County student who wants to go to Mississippi State, is well aware she is missing out. Passionate about learning, she joined the quiz bowl team and studied hard at the school’s computer lab before the first state competition. But the 15-minute lag each time she opened a webpage put her leagues behind her competitors, Education Week reported.

Those struggles hit close to home. Just hours outside Pittsburgh, rural districts in West Virginia face challenges getting connected. Last year, we reported on major leaps in digital learning opportunities in the region, thanks to a combination of grants, public money, and partnerships with Pittsburgh programs. Most schools in West Virginia, half of which are rural, have decent internet access now. The same is not true for the students’ homes.

The 2013 American Community Survey puts West Virginia in the bottom 10 states in terms of home internet access. Only 71.8 percent of individuals live in homes with high-speed internet, compared to a national average of 78.1 percent and a high of 85.7 percent in New Hampshire. The federal ConnectHome initiative brings internet to low-income housing, but so far the program includes only 28 cities.

As traditional rural industries experience hardships, economic and academic mobility require digital proficiency.
The benefit of internet access at school is diminished if the students cannot continue their work at home, said John Ross, an edtech consultant and researcher who has lived and worked in rural districts. “It’s not just typing up a Word document,” he said. “It’s having access to rich media, to simulations, to animations, to pulling down real time data, to communication and collaboration.”

There is some hope for improvement. The federal program E-rate program uses fees on consumer phone bills to help cover internet and phone service at schools and libraries. As of this fall, Education Week reports, more money is available through the program, and telecoms will be required to reveal their school rates. The noncompetitive companies may risk losing government subsidies. The overhaul of the E-rate program is part of Obama’s 2013 pledge to bring high-speed internet to 99 percent of American students by 2018, but critics say the market-based solution is not enough.

Much of the conversation today about the “digital divide”—the disparity between students who have access to technology and those who do not—is focused on devices. Which schools can afford laptops? How should teachers incorporate donated Chromebooks into their lesson plans? Are cellphones a distraction or a useful learning tool?

But in swaths of the country, those questions are far from central. When schools cannot provide basic internet connection, their students are at a disadvantage in a society and job market that increasingly demands digital competency.