This back-to-school season certainly is off to a different beginning than in years past. As Tennessee teachers kick off the year with a mix of in-person and remote instruction, parents are facing a host of new challenges while shepherding their children through a combination of in-class and virtual lessons. They’re asking themselves: What can I do to help my child focus? Will my child’s teacher be able to provide one-on-one help? How will all this impact my own work schedule?
Rural Tennesseans, like many rural Americans, experience an added element of stress and additional complications when it comes to remote learning: lack of high-speed internet access. If you ask a parent from New York City or Los Angeles about the biggest obstacle they faced during the transition to eLearning, chances are slim to none they’ll complain about connection speeds. Tennessee students, on the other hand, are now learning the hard way that both the tablets and laptops meant to create a new type of classroom experience are practically useless without reliable Internet.
While it is my hope that all of our students will be able to return to the consistency of in-classroom learning as soon as possible, in the meantime we need to do everything in our power to invest in underserved communities and close this “digital divide.”
During my time in Congress, working with local officials, tech companies, and my colleagues to increase access to broadband has been at the top of our to-do list. We have made measurable strides by prioritizing funding for the transmission technology used to get Internet service to many places at once. Over the past five years, efforts on the national, state, and local levels have made steady progress, substantially shrinking unserved areas through a series of targeted investments.
Most recently, in April, Gov. Bill Lee and Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bob Rolfe, along with General Assembly members, announced $19.7 million in broadband grants to support 31,000 unserved Tennesseans. And just last month, the Governor announced a $61 million emergency broadband grant to improve access throughout Tennessee. This wave of funding, a portion of the state’s federal coronavirus relief, will help deliver Internet to areas in need, with priority going to unserved areas.
Congress is complementing state-led efforts by cutting away the burdensome regulatory red tape that scares companies away from building technology infrastructure. The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) was created last year to construct quality networks that prioritize higher network speeds. In June, I joined Senators Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Shelley Capito (R-W.V.) to introduce the Accelerating Broadband Connectivity (ABC) Act, which would incentivize companies participating in RDOF bids to complete their work on an accelerated timeline. Additionally, Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and I led a bipartisan group in urging Senate leadership to include investments in STEM education in any future COVID-19 legislation to protect the future of our workforce. Our primary request is a national focus on improving rural broadband for distance learning, an issue with strong support from both sides of the aisle.
These moves build upon pre-pandemic efforts. Last year, Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) and I introduced the Internet Exchange Act to improve broadband efficiency. This legislation would help to decrease lag time so that when a student joins a class virtually, they’re not slowed down by loading delays while their peers move ahead with lessons.
Parents need to be able to trust that their efforts to balance remote learning with adjusted work schedules will not be compounded by a frustrating lack of Internet. Fortunately, the push for broadband has gained bipartisan momentum in Washington, bringing Tennesseans one step closer to the coveted — and essential — connections so many of us have waited so long for.
This effort began long before COVID-19 reached our shores, and will continue after it has left. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: you can’t have a 21st-century education, a 21st-century economy, or 21st-century healthcare if you don’t have 21st-century Internet.
Marsha Blackburn represents Tennessee in the U.S. Senate.