Will online learning outpace rural access to high-speed Internet?

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Access to the Internet seems to be everywhere these days and for many, it is no longer seen as a luxury, but a necessity. Free WiFi can be found at local grocery chains, coffee shops and public libraries. Many of today’s top cell phones are equipped with speeds comparable to home internet. However, according to a 2012 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) report, roughly 19 million Americans lack access to high-speed Internet. Of those, some 14.5 million live in rural areas.

 This presents a significant challenge to distance learning programs as their popularity continues to swell. A 2012 survey from the Babson Survey Research Group found that 6.7 million students take at least one class online with higher education accounting for 32 percent. Statewide public university systems like South Dakota are seeing tremendous growth in online learning. Over the last five years, the state has seen an increase of 71 percent in online course enrollment.

The lack of connectivity, however, isn’t just with individuals and private access. E-rate funding, a program administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) and directed by the FCC, provides discounts to most schools and libraries around the United States, but some 80 percent say their broadband connections do not fully meet their needs. In many cases, most of the unserved Americans live in areas where there are no businesses offering free WiFi. The data indicates that nearly one in four rural Americans lack access to high-speed internet that meets the FCC benchmark and rural Americans are thirteen times more likely to lack access all together.

Rural America is facing a troubling dichotomy: distance learning options and availability continue to grow for many states, but access to the type of high-speed broadband necessary remains relatively sparse. The FCC’s 2011 Connect America Fund, a $4.5 billion annually capped project to connect rural areas to high-speed broadband, has invested $115 million to bring service to 400,000 Americans. Other states like Massachusetts have taken the initiative to connect its own residents. MassBroadband 123, a $45.4 million dollar project, hopes to connect over 120 communities in western and north central Massachusetts with roughly 1,200 miles of fiber-optic cable.

The rate of growth in distance learning is outpacing accessibility growth and has many areas of the country struggling to catch up. The federal government has recognized the broadband disparity, offering $250 million for broadband adoption through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The challenge remains to building the infrastructure and connecting Americans in time for the distance learning education rush that so many rural Americans depend on.