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On the Wrong Side of the Digital Divide

For the good of the nation and our students, the US needs better broadband.

This story appears in the October 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology. Click here for a free subscription to the magazine.

The digital divide in this country is real. I should know because I'm on the wrong side of it. I live in a rural county on Virginia's Eastern Shore where cable access is, literally, a pipe dream for many residents. Instead, we make do with MiFi or satellite solutions that work fine as long as you are e-mailing, shopping, or surfing the web. Throw video into the mix, though, and you can forget it. Not only are the download speeds not fast enough to provide a good experience, but you would have to be richer than Croesus to afford the data charges.

I dropped out of a Spanish MOOC because the video-intensive course materials were going to cost more in data fees than a round-trip ticket to Barcelona. The idea of completing an online degree from home is laughable.

Yet that is exactly the situation facing millions of Americans. The problem is particularly dire in rural areas, but pockets of major cities are also poorly served. And it threatens to leave large swaths of the country isolated, uneducated, and unemployed, because broadband is the 21st century equivalent of the interstates and the railroads rolled into one.

It's a crisis not lost on Tim Kirk, CIO of South Arkansas Community College, who is trying to persuade service providers and local leaders of the fundamental need for broadband in his rural region (read "Showcasing the Importance of Broadband" in our October issue).

It's a crisis not lost on Edith Westfall at the University of the District of Columbia Community College, where she not only battles to overcome digital illiteracy among students but also spotty broadband access in the heart of our nation's capital (read "When Students Can't Compute").

Now contrast their battles with our October cover story, "The Online State." To its credit, Florida is trying to overcome another intransigent problem--lack of access to higher education and its high cost--by launching an online-only public university for baccalaureate degrees. It's a bold initiative that highlights just how quickly online learning is becoming part of the mainstream. But as education becomes increasingly reliant on high-speed broadband, what happens to those students who are unable to participate?

In the US, we like to think that we lead the world in all things. In many areas we do, but we trail horribly when it comes to broadband--in terms of speed, price, and accessibility. The FCC is currently considering a massive redesign of the E-Rate program that brings broadband to K-12 schools. It's a start but it's not enough. For the good of the nation, high-speed broadband must reach beyond our schools to our homes and workplaces. Anything less is second best.

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