Students and teachers who struggle to access the internet at home may get some relief from a sweeping, more than $1 trillion federal investment in infrastructure.
The package—which was approved by Congress Nov. 5 and is expected to be signed into law by President Joe Biden—includes nearly $65 billion to improve access to broadband and help the country respond to cyberattacks.
The funding is a good step forward in helping to close the so-called “homework gap,” or the difficulty millions of students—particularly poor, minority, and rural kids—have in getting online at home to complete school assignments, said Keith Krueger, the chief executive officer of the Consortium for School Networking, which supports K-12 education technology leaders.
“While there’s been a huge strategy by many school districts to provide hotspots [and get] connectivity to students who don’t have it, there are still large swaths of the country that are too rural or remote” or have other structural issues that prevent them from accessing the internet, he said. “As a country, we really need to solve that. And it’s not something that school districts alone can solve.”
How will this bill help students with little or no connectivity at home?
The biggest chunk of the money—$42.5 billion in “broadband deployment grants”—is aimed at expanding broadband infrastructure to reach families and businesses in rural and other underserved areas. That may help students and teachers who have been unable to take full advantage of district-provided hotspots because the area they live in doesn’t have the kind of connectivity needed to operate them.
It also includes $14 billion to help low-income households connect to broadband. That could help students who live in connected areas but remain offline because their families can’t cover the cost of internet service.
That’s about two-thirds of the 28 million households that aren’t connected, or about 18 million families, according to a recent report from EducationSuperHighway, a non-profit that champions internet access.
The legislation also includes $2.75 billion for “digital equity,” designed in part to focus on aspects of connectivity beyond broadband expansion. That funding could go to a wide-range of expenses, anything from laptops for students to digital literacy classes for senior citizens at the local library, according to a statement from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who championed the program.
The money would be used in part to pay for two new grant programs, including $300 million in grants over five years to help states create and implement plans to improve digital equity. Another $250 million over five years would support individual groups’ and communities’ digital equity projects.
Still, it’s important to keep in mind that the homework gap may persist, even after more students have at least some broadband access at home, Krueger said. For instance, students may not have a connection strong enough to stream video lessons, or enough devices in their household to go around.
“The media headline has been about the unconnected, but the under connectivity is extremely important,” he said. “It isn’t just a matter of handing [kids] a hotspot or giving them a cheap device that can’t do video conferencing. We have to invest in robust tools.”