Internet Availability Becomes an Issue for Online Students

Taryn Zard, Staff Writer

With schools across the nation moving to either fully online learning or hybrid learning models, one of the biggest challenges school administrator’s face is how to make sure some students do not get left behind in their education simply due to a lack of internet access.

In Washington state, the disparity in internet access can vary greatly depending on where people live. For example, in rural Mason county, 15 percent of students do not have access to the internet (according to King 5 News). Some people are able to jump online 24/7 and seldom give it another thought. People get frustrated and annoyed if the internet starts “lagging” or the signal is lost temporarily. Yet, for some students, internet access is a luxury; they either don’t have internet access at home or it isn’t very dependable with factors like weather greatly impacting how good the service is. 

A recent study by Broadband Now in the state of Washington shows that we are the 16th most connected state in the United States, however there is still a great deal of discrepancy in the quality of the internet available. In Washington, 338,000 people don’t have access to an internet connection with download speeds of greater than 25 Mbps and over 103,000 people in Washington state don’t have any internet provider available at all. Additionally, just because there may be internet available, for some people the price is too much.

The U.S. Census estimated that over 735,000 people in our state don’t have an internet connection and that another 500,000 people only have internet through their cell phone plans (which are often limited). On top of those numbers, another 12,000 people are using slow dial-up service which is unreliable, tedious, and presents its own challenges now for extensions such as Zoom classes.

Another obstacle is that many people previously relied on local free Wi-Fi spots like libraries to access the internet and in many areas, libraries are either still closed, seating has been limited, or the hours are much shorter, which creates another challenge for those working full or even part-time. The closures have forced people to use the parking lots and sidewalks as their mobile work or school stations in an attempt to still access the free Wi-Fi that libraries provide. While that works for some, it’s not ideal for a family with multiple kids or people that have no car who must sit outdoors, exposed to the elements.

Ways to fix such issues and level the playing field are being actively pursued. Thankfully, the need for available and dependable internet service is a national initiative to help support education and there are many federal grants to help, and many internet providers are stepping up their infrastructure to allow for that. Washington state has recently received $166 million in funding to help achieve better access and bandwidth for people, and while that is great news, it will take time to create the necessary infrastructure for the internet. 

So, what is being done now to help make a difference? The Federal CARES act is helping Washington State distribute internet and other learning resources right now to low-income students. Washington State also developed a K-20 Education Network that is a state funded, high-speed, broadband network of educational resources, free to access through the internet. 

Some school districts are driving Wi-Fi enabled buses to rural areas and low-income neighborhoods and parking them during normal school hours to allow for students to have access to their teachers and classrooms. Some cellular providers have offered lifting data caps on cell phone plans allowing more freedom for students to use a phone for learning, though not ideal, is better than nothing at all. Some cell phone providers are making it easier for people to use their device as a mobile hotspot. Comcast and other internet providers have offered deeply discounted or free internet to low-income families to help bridge the gap, and they have also donated many portable hotspots that schools can loan out to students that need internet access. Many schools have laptops and tablets that they will loan out to students for the year to assist them with online/distance learning.

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