In the spring of 2020, when the pandemic gripped the world, schools shut down and everyone made a fast pivot to online learning. Everyone who could, that is. “Students who do not have sufficient access to digital learning resources cannot fully participate in remote learning. In effect, students who lack such access are barred from the virtual classroom. This divide between those who have access and those who do not occurs in both urban and rural areas of the country and reflects historical structural biases, ableism, inequalities, and prejudices.” (Digital Equity for students and educators, 2020, p. 2). The pandemic and remote schooling put the unequal access to digital tools like computers and reliable internet at the forefront of people’s minds, but this is a long-standing issue in our country. “We are not ‘all online now’ as people were fond of responding before Covid-19 when you tried to raise the question of digital inequalities. Prior to the pandemic there was plenty of evidence confirm the so-called ‘homework gap’ – i.e. that nearly 20 percent of US teens report being unable to complete school work at home due to lack of devices and/or connectivity (Anderson and Perrin 2018). Gaps like these have blighted remote schooling during the lockdowns – especially for the low-income, black households where these issues are most prevalent.” (Selwin & Jandric, 2020, paragraph 12). The issue of access was made more visible by the move to online schooling, but the access inequality was always there.
The importance of reliable internet infrastructure is multi-faceted: from its role in education, its ability to allow for businesses to become or remain competitive, the ability to provide physical and mental health service, and even to provide reliable emergency services is all part of the way that the internet is not a luxury but an essential service (Education Superhighway, n.d.).
Even though accessible, reliable, affordable internet access is a generally popular concept, it is not an easy task to make happen, especially in Alaska. The Task Force on Broadband found: The hardest to serve communities are located “off the road system”, meaning they are only accessible by boat or aircraft, with no roads in or out. Mountainous terrain, harsh winter weather, permafrost, a very short construction season, and limited to no daylight hours in winter months represent significant additional hurdles to overcome, not just for the deployment of broadband infrastructure but for its ongoing maintenance and operation as well. Beyond geography, Alaska’s status as the third least-populous U.S. state means that telecommunication companies face extreme economic hurdles in justifying the expenditure of private capital on broadband infrastructure to many areas. Alaska’s low population and distance between communities outside the larger cities of Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau translates into an environment where there may be no viable means of cost recovery without significant government support (2021).
Because of the spread of the communities around the state, along with the fact that much of the land between villages are owned by state or federal level departments, there is a great need for the government to provide some support to the ISPs to make their service possible. The need for companies to turn a profit is at odds with the need for society to have equitable access for every person, regardless of how remote they are. Luckily there are now many others who see this issue as a priority.
At the start of the pandemic, many grants and laws were passed to support more access and funding to create the infrastructure necessary to deliver high speed internet across the nation. Non-profit and not-for-profit groups helping like the Education Superhighway, as well as ISPs and policy makers directly. But the issue persists, and so does the activism. Just this weekend, senators Murkowski and Sullivan shared that the Tanana Chiefs Conference will be receiving a “$30.3 million federal broadband grant, made possible by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.” (Office of Murkowski, 2022).
If this issue is near and dear to you too, please take a moment to write to your local legislators about this topic. I also encourage you to find a way to help support those who are supporting our students and neighbors, and to that end, here are just a few groups working hard to bring the internet to everyone.
- The Education Superhighway
- AK Energy and Broadband Authority, HB 370
- GCI and Bridging the Digital Divide
- USDA ReConnect
- Broadband Now
- Broadband Ready
Broadband ready. Alaska Business Magazine. (2022, June 25). Retrieved October 30, 2022, from https://digital.akbizmag.com/issue/july-2022/broadband-ready/
Education Superhighway. EducationSuperHighway. (2022, October 20). Retrieved October 30, 2022, from https://www.educationsuperhighway.org/
Foresman, B. (2020, March 27). Alaska doubles minimum internet speeds for Schools. EdScoop. Retrieved October 30, 2022, from https://edscoop.com/alaska-doubles-minimum-internet-speeds-schools/
Governor’s Task Force on Broadband. (2021, November). State of Alaska Governor’s Task Force on Broadband: Final Report. Broadband Task Force: Office of Governor Mike Dunleavy. Retrieved October 30, 2022, from https://indd.adobe.com/view/42ddcfe3-5ea9-4bcb-bd09-a71bcb63869a
Office of Murkowski. (2022,October 28). Interior Alaska receives $30 million to deploy high-speed internet: U.S. senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Retrieved October 30, 2022, from https://www.murkowski.senate.gov/press/release/interior-alaska-receives-30-million-to-deploy-high-speed-internet-
National Broadband Map. BroadbandNow. (2022, October 12). Retrieved October 30, 2022, from https://broadbandnow.com/national-broadband-map
Public Policy Associates, Incorporated. (n.d.). NEA – Nea Home. Digital Equity for Students and Educators. Retrieved October 31, 2022, from https://www.nea.org/sites/default/files/2020-10/NEA%20Report%20-%20Digital%20Equity%20for%20Students%20and%20Educators.pdf
Selwyn, N., & Jandric, P. (2020, July 9). Postdigital living in the age of covid-19: Unsettling what we see as possible – postdigital science and Education. SpringerLink. Retrieved October 30, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s42438-020-00166-9