Internet Service is as Essential as Electricity.
By Bill Polasky
Last month, the teaching and classroom world in Illinois turned virtual, all in the space of three days, as we closed our schools, ultimately deciding not to reopen them for the rest of this year. On what turned out to be our final day physically together, I was setting up distance learning contacts for all of my students, and I asked my senior sociology class, “Who might have problems staying in contact?” Sophie’s hand went up slowly. Self-consciously, she explained, “We don’t get Wi-Fi access on our farm, so I can get online with my phone. Sometimes.” Steven’s hand went up, then Devin’s, then Kayla’s, then Yesenia’s, all saying the same thing: “We don’t have internet access where I live.”
For these students, affordability was not the problem. Although poverty clearly impacts the educational experiences of many students, the issue here is one of physical geography. There are wide swaths of the country where internet providers have made a conscious choice not to offer service, because those areas are not profitable. Several of my students, and many more across the country, live in these areas where broadband internet access is simply not available. And I teach in exurban America, just 35 minutes outside of the Chicago suburbs. My community of small farms and scattered subdivisions is hardly one of extreme isolation. If my kids and families are having access issues, what must that mean for students and families in rural South Dakota, Idaho, Mississippi, or Appalachia?
While at least 21 million people in this country, if not twice that amount, live in areas with no broadband access, this is not just a rural problem. A friend who teaches in East St. Louis told me that many of his students face the same problem in low-income urban areas, where private vendors have also found it not enticing to invest. While America faces an increasing urban-rural divide in many aspects of life, the issue of broadband access transcends that thinking. Welcome to the digital divide.
This isn’t a red state problem, or blue state problem. Nor is it a rural or urban problem — it is an American problem. The current national pandemic has exposed systemic inequalities in our society that have been present for decades. The limits of our technological infrastructure have become clear, and the solution to this problem is equally clear: Access to the internet is as vital as electricity, so the federal government must treat it as a utility and create a universal broadband infrastructure. Only the federal government has the capacity and resources to create the necessary infrastructure to assure that every student, and every citizen, has broadband internet access, no matter where they live.
As a history teacher, I am always looking for lessons from the past to share with my students, and there is precedent for this sort of program and this sort of mandate. My students are amazed to discover that in the 1930s, only about 10% of rural Americans had electricity. Then in 1935, Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act, which extended electrical service to almost every rural home over the next 15 years. Getting access to that service marked a turning point in the lives of millions of Americans, and most would agree that rural electrification was a wise investment rather than an example of federal overreach or a waste of tax dollars. My students always smile when I retell for them the Congressional testimony of one Tennessee farmer in 1940, who said, “The greatest thing on earth is to have the love of God in your heart, and the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your house.”
Internet access is as essential and liberating today as electricity was then. For the children and students of the nation, who have no say at all about where they live and learn, technological access is not really a convenience as much as it is a necessity. And the equity challenges we face are not new. Every year, my students analyze an excerpt of a 1944 address from President Roosevelt: “The practice has been too frequent in the past for private utility companies to undertake to serve only the more prosperous and more populous rural sections. As a result, families in less favored and sparsely settled sections were left unserved.” Students are always quick to point out how the case for internet access today is identical. Like electrification and telephone service, internet access must be treated as a utility, and not be limited to areas with greater resources that the private sector finds profitable.
History has given us a successful model for universal access. The Rural Utility Service already exists to do the work, and in 2014, Congress amended the Rural Electrification Act to establish a pilot program for rural gigabit broadband networks. As the COVID-19 crisis exposes the critical need to provide internet access to all, now is the time for Congress to take the next step and extend broadband internet access to every American. Our nation cannot continue to grant some citizens and students broadband internet access and the opportunities that come with it, while denying those same opportunities to others. We recognized this before and did something about it. That changed the lives of millions of Americans for the better. We certainly can, and we certainly must, do it again.
Bill Polasky is the department chair for social sciences at Stillman Valley High School in the rural exurban community of Stillman Valley, Illinois, where he teaches AP US History, AP American Government & Politics, and sociology. He is a 2019 Illinois Teacher of the Year Finalist and a 2019–20 Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellow.