When most people think of today’s teens on the internet, they think of viral videos on TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram. For me, it brings to mind Nora Medina, a teen in Quincy, Washington, an agricultural community with a population of less than 8,000.
Quincy has struggled with high-speed broadband access for most of Nora’s life, but that hasn’t stopped Nora from pursuing her associate degree in computer science while she completes high school. Before COVID-19, she also co-led weekly training on digital skills for all members of her community as it became increasingly connected.
But imagine if Nora’s community still didn’t have adequate internet access for her to complete her high school or college courses. How would she be able to continue her learning and development—especially during the pandemic? Would the opportunities for future advancement in her education or career look the same?
Unfortunately, this is a question that many students are asking across the United States. A recent Harris Poll commissioned by National 4-H Council and Microsoft found that 21% of teens don’t have internet access at home but instead rely on schools, libraries, and other public places to get access. Teens without reliable access to broadband reported feeling less confident in their skills and in their long-term social and economic prospects. Over half said they’ve struggled to complete their homework because of slow internet connections—and this was before COVID-19 shifted many American students to virtual classrooms for the indefinite future.
The sudden and serious impact of COVID-19 has magnified the fact that lack of high-speed internet access is a longstanding barrier that communities and their young people face in their pursuit of the American dream. As states across the country begin phased approaches back to some sense of normalcy, schools and libraries still face indefinite closures leading into the summer, posing a greater likelihood of learning loss without structured classroom environments. Virtual learning has become more critical than ever, especially as our country considers how to begin the school year in the fall. With the current digital skills gap, too many young people are at an even greater risk of slipping through the cracks.
This problem goes far beyond high-speed internet; it’s about the social and economic opportunities that today’s teens can’t access without the right tools and digital skills. Without broadband, they’re on a trajectory to be left behind their more connected peers regardless of geographic location. We cannot afford to hold kids back from accomplishing more in their communities, their schools, and our workforce, especially now when so many depend on internet access to simply do schoolwork. We need faster solutions that serve children and their families throughout the duration of COVID-19 and into the future.
While the impact of a lack of broadband access may hit our country’s youth hardest, they aren’t alone. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 19 million Americans in rural communities do not have access to broadband. That’s 19 million people without access to the latest health updates, telework, virtual medical care, and other critical services while we face one of the greatest challenges in the nation’s history.
Before COVID-19, the U.S. had been making some progress on broadband access in rural America. The 2018 Farm Bill appropriated $350 million in federal funding to support new broadband construction and development efforts. In January 2020, the FCC pledged $20.4 billion over the next 10 years to finance the expansion of gigabit-speed broadband networks in underserved rural communities. In response to COVID-19, Congress designated $100 million for the purposes of prioritizing broadband expansion. But it is vital that more be done in the months ahead to address this important issue.
Our country needs to offer equitable opportunities to our rural communities so they can grow and thrive into the future. Eighty percent of American teens surveyed said high-speed internet access could change their community for the better. Among those teens who plan to leave their hometowns, 34% cite poor internet connectivity as the reason for their decision. This figure jumps to 43% for teens living in rural areas. History teaches us that when communities are presented with the same opportunities to achieve success through education or business development, they become stronger. And in today’s economy, that success begins with broadband access to develop the digital skills for the workforce of the future.
I fully believe that young people such as Nora can help us lead this charge in their communities and across the country. We cannot be content to leave some Americans behind because of their circumstances—geographic, economic, or otherwise. We will continue to advocate for more broadband access until the digital divide is closed for good.
Jennifer Sirangelo is the president and chief executive officer of the National 4-H Council.