Pandemic highlights internet gap for rural students around Waco, Central Texas
Fiber optic networks crisscross the university towns of Waco and Bryan-College Station, offering speeds of up to one gigabit per second, a gushing river of data that connects people with entertainment, education, business and medical information.
But over much of the 90 miles between — in mostly rural Falls and Robertson counties — internet speed and adoption rates quickly drop off, along with the economic potential that technology represents, reporting by the Tribune-Herald and Bryan-College Station Eagle shows.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into stark relief the rural-urban digital divide, especially as schools prepare to reopen with a mixture of in-person and online education.
“COVID really illustrated the divide. It’s what has really exposed it in a meaningful way,” said Sharon Strover, director of the Technology and Information Policy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin.
School districts in the region and around the state are rushing to equip their students with laptops and mobile data hotspots, especially in poor and rural areas where families are less likely to have high-speed internet. The Texas Education Agency estimates 1.8 million Texas students are without access to a computer or internet service.
Through “Operation Connectivity,” the state of Texas and school districts are spending $250 million to provide students with that technology, including 716,000 laptops and tablets and 285,000 hotspots, the Texas Tribune reported this week.
Much of the money comes from recently approved federal relief packages, and the bulk orders have allowed officials to negotiate discounts. Schools have been able to arrange mobile data plans for as low as $15 per month per device, said Ed Newman, technology director for Education Service Center Region 12, which serves 12 counties including McLennan.
Among the participants is tiny Hallsburg Independent School District in rural eastern McLennan County, which plans to distribute 30 or 40 mobile hotspots among its student population of about 120.
“It’s a twofold situation,” Superintendent Kent Reynolds said. “A lot of our kids just don’t have internet at home just because they can’t afford internet service. Coverage is another issue.”