Congress Should Invest in Internet Connectivity for Underserved Students | Opinion

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted disparities throughout our country in issues from health care to education. As we seek to address these disparities, we need to prioritize closing existing gaps in access to high-speed internet, particularly for rural and underserved communities.

When it comes to education, far too many of our nation's students are living without basic broadband internet connections. Today, this lack of access adversely impacts more than 20 million Americans, including 600,000 in my home state of South Carolina. After the onset of COVID-19 closed schools and libraries that typically provide free internet access, 40,000 students in the Palmetto State faced academic challenges due to at-home connectivity issues.

While my state tried numerous solutions, including setting up hot spots in rural areas and using public access television to deliver lesson plans in certain locations, we clearly need to do more as a nation to strengthen connectivity for Americans from all regions and walks of life. According to one report, 16.9 million American children lack the home internet access needed to learn remotely, opening a nationwide "homework gap." This widespread problem disproportionately impacts those living in rural and economically disadvantaged communities throughout the country. With many students in these areas still learning virtually full-time, the problem has been compounded.

This is simply unacceptable in 21st-century America.

Our society, especially during the ongoing pandemic emergency, is being forced to harness its agility more than ever before. From the acceleration of the gig economy to the explosive growth of telehealth and the advent of 5G, rapid advancements in technology are fundamentally transforming the way Americans live, work and play. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for how we learn.

It is tragic—given all of the technological and financial resources at our disposal—that so many students still lack access to working devices. As one of the most developed countries in the world, it is crucial that we have the infrastructure to provide internet connectivity.

remote learning
Abigail Previlon, 13, takes part in remote distance learning with her special education teacher Diane Gamse on October 28, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. John Moore/Getty

Although there is always more work to be done, we have made progress in closing the digital divide. Thanks to the leadership of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Ajit Pai, the federal government is investing billions of dollars to speed up and expand access to broadband in rural and other technologically underserved communities. The private sector's response has also been overwhelming, as more than 800 telecommunications providers took the FCC's "Keep Americans Connected Pledge," in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, state governments have made efforts to expand access to broadband in communities with the greatest needs.

The effort to ensure that every American can one day participate in the digital economy must be a collective one. It is, however, critical that we invest even more, especially since an unforeseen health crisis has laid bare our remaining technological shortcomings.

Earlier this year, I joined our state's entire congressional delegation in urging House and Senate leadership to do just that, as we continue to address our country's urgent pandemic needs. I've also introduced two rural broadband access bills, one of which would create a pilot program to provide grants to historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions to expand digital access and broadband in their communities.

Internet access is deeply interconnected to our ability to provide equitable economic opportunities. Without broadband, an entire array of career opportunities are unavailable. This is work that requires partnerships with businesses and incentives provided from federal leadership. There are 8,700 opportunity zones across the country supported by $75 billion in private investment. These dollars are improving communities and transforming lives by providing well-paying jobs and affordable homes. My colleagues and I are working now to ensure that schools in or near these zones become part of the equation, especially given their potential to provide career readiness and job training instruction. Beyond funding and internet access, we must not lose sight of the fact that education is ultimately about improving outcomes for students.

Growing up in a single-parent household with limited resources taught me the value of a quality education in unlocking someone's full potential. Today, it starts with ensuring that every child has access to broadband. At a time when the rising tide of technology and innovation is improving the lives of so many, not all boats have been lifted.

We can and must do better to level the playing field, especially in a world that is becoming increasingly virtual.

Tim Scott has represented South Carolina in the U.S. Senate since 2013 and was a keynote speaker at the 2020 Reagan Institute Summit on Education.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.