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Columns

The Internet Highway: What Will Tomorrow Bring?

July 26, 2017 - 8:30am

While perusing some educational statistics compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics, I began to think through just how we possibly got ourselves into many of the social, civic and political conundrums in which we now find ourselves. As always, education matters.

My contention, now and forever, is that the key to a successful future is obtained by earning a quality education wherever it can be found. Gaps in availability should be a prime concern for policymakers, especially in this online, digital age, where the wisdom of the ages is available by entering a few keystrokes. 

Unfortunately, there are many communities in Florida, and across our country, where broadband access is either non-existent or terribly slow and inefficient at best. Students of all ages should not be limited in how they can learn based on where they live. In Florida alone, more than 680,000 people are without broadband access due to geography. 

When one thinks about the vastness of our country, the reality of blanket coverage of the minimum Federal Communications Commission (FCC) standard speed benchmark of 25 Mbps for download and 3 Mbps for upload for fixed services becomes hard to obtain. 

The FCC estimates that 10 percent, or 34 million, of all Americans lack access to this benchmark service level, with 39 percent of rural Americans lacking as well. The numbers with fixed terrestrial services are even worse, with 20 percent of rural Americans lacking even service at 4 Mbps/1Mbps. In these communities learning stays at the oral transmission level with little access to any online access for research and learning.

So it is little wonder when one examines educational attainment in rural communities one sees much lower levels in communities with limited broadband access. Of course, rural communities have always lagged in educational attainment, but correcting these ailments is limited when other areas have full high-speed access. It is impossible to catch up, even if just a little, when you are standing still while urban and more densely populated communities are running at full and growing speeds.

In Florida, the more isolated rural counties -- those abutting larger counties gain access more easily -- not only have the higher number of citizens without access, they are also more likely to have lower educational attainment and lower income levels per capita. These same low Internet access counties are also more likely to be among those where the recent years have seen either job or population declines, or perhaps both, while Florida as a whole grows quickly. 

When a state grows at a pace well exceeding 1,000 people a day, it should be of grave concern when 18 counties have shown zero or negative job growth in the most recent five years measured.

Clearly the growth is higher in more populated communities, as is the general population growth too, but absent addressing the needed access to information, how then, can the state turn around these job and resident declines? I am not contending that broadband access is the sole prescription for recovery; however, without it the handicaps to learning in schools and at home are too great to catch up, much less stay in place. 

It would seem that no matter how hard the state tries to entice businesses to relocate, the obstacles of lower educational attainment, limited access to information, and limited capacity for the business needs for broadband accessibility, put in place hurdles far too large to clear. 

Nationally, only 15 states have high school graduation rates (NCES data) less than 80 percent. Thirty-four states fall within 80-89 percent, and only two -- Iowa and New Jersey -- exceed 90 percent. When the FCC concludes that 41 percent of schools in the U.S., representing 47 percent of our students, “lack the connectivity to reach the Commission’s short term goal” of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and staff, we have a serious global competition problem. 

Florida is positioned to make great strides in connectivity, but in ramping up access, we must consider all of Florida. 

In Florida, we have seen a growth in online post-secondary education. To many potential students the availability of degree programs online has created an access to future success that was not possible just a few years ago. 

The Florida Legislature approved Florida’s entry into a national consortium of colleges and universities NC-SARA, which will allow students from all over the country to access our own online certificate and degree programs, driving up demand and expanding the number of programs. The Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida’s member schools now offer more than 590 fully online degree and certificate programs. Access to these programs should not be driven by where one lives. Limited broadband access slams the door on accessibility. You cannot get ahead if you cannot get online.

We must make all of Florida attractive to those both living here now and coming in the future to our great state. Access to the information highway is just as important in this digital era as are our roads and transportation systems. Getting from here to there online may mean the difference in survival for some of our communities. Let’s leave no citizen off the Internet highway. 

Ed H. Moore, Ph.D., is president of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida.


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