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High-speed internet isn’t a luxury; it’s essential for a 21st-century education

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A Rotary club in Denver, Colorado, USA helped expand the information highway to reach all the state’s kids


When it comes to global issues, access to high-speed internet might not seem to be a high priority. But when a community lacks internet access, its economy can suffer as residents deal with limited educational and employment opportunities.

In the United States, many people face high internet costs and low, erratic — or nonexistent — bandwidth. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 18.3 million Americans — 5.6 percent of the population — lack access to high-speed internet. But a study by BroadbandNow Research, which looked at the FCC data in more detail, puts the number closer to 42 million people, or 13 percent of Americans. The issue is especially pronounced in rural areas: According to the FCC, 22 percent of rural Americans lack broadband internet at home, compared with only 1.5 percent of urban Americans.

Internet access is essential for rural communities. In some ways it’s even more important than for cities. The two things that immediately come to mind are education and jobs.

Director of the Community Broadband Network Initiative

“Internet access is essential for rural communities,” says Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Network Initiative, a program of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a research and advocacy organization. “In some ways it’s even more important than for cities. The two things that immediately come to mind are education and jobs,” he says. Homework options are limited without internet access in the home, he explains, “and employers are looking to put their jobs in places that have good internet access. Towns that have slow internet access are generally shrinking.”

Rotary clubs address internet inequality

In 2010, as the Rotary Club of Denver neared its 100th anniversary, members started thinking about a project to mark the event. Club member John Klug recalls that “we kept asking ourselves what we could do that 100 years from now, at our 200th anniversary, someone might look back at and say, ‘Wow. What they did was amazing; it truly made a difference.’”

Roland Thornton, then the club’s president and an executive at telecommunications company Qwest Communications, knew that many rural schools lacked the high-speed internet access common in urban ones, putting their students at a disadvantage. “There are countries in Asia,” Thornton remembers thinking, “that have a considerably larger broadband footprint than the United States. I was trying to make us more competitive from a global perspective. My focus was on those rural schools.”

What is broadband?

The word broadband refers to high-speed, high-capacity, reliable internet access. Wired broadband access can be delivered through a digital subscriber line (DSL), a coaxial cable, or a fiber-optic line (which sends light through glass filaments). Broadband access can also be delivered wirelessly. The minimum speed to be considered broadband is 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloading and 3 Mbps for uploading. Better connections are between 100 and 1,000 Mbps.

Most connected U.S. states

  1. 1

    New Jersey

  2. 2

    New York

  3. 3


  4. 4

    Rhode Island

  5. 5


Thornton heard about an organization called the Eagle-Net Alliance (which stands for Educational Access Gateway Learning Environment Network), a coalition of public and private groups that also wanted to bring high-speed internet to the far corners of Colorado. At the time, the state considered itself a tech hub, but in terms of broadband connectivity, it was among the lowest-ranked in the nation. In some rural areas, internet costs were 10 times higher than in Denver. Eagle-Net had applied for a federal grant from the government’s broadband stimulus program, but the application had been denied. So the Rotary Club of Denver took on the challenge.

“We wanted to focus on the centennial of Rotary in Colorado, which is why this project was of interest to us,” says Seth Patterson, president of the Denver club in 2011-12. “It covered nearly every corner of the state.”

The club helped Eagle-Net reapply for the grant. Members started an online petition and put together a YouTube video. The video emphasized that this was a bipartisan issue, featuring endorsements from former Senator Hank Brown, a Republican, and former Governor Dick Lamm, a Democrat. They got school boards, local officials, and business groups involved to show community support. The second application was successful, and Eagle-Net received a $100.6 million grant to start extending the Colorado information highway to reach all the state’s kids.

Least connected U.S. states

  1. 46


  2. 47


  3. 48

    New Mexico

  4. 49


  5. 50


Inching closer to equal internet access

According to a study by the Blandin Foundation, a Minnesota-based nonprofit focused on improving rural communities, broadband access creates $1,850 in economic benefit per household per year and increases home values. It expands online commerce opportunities and connects factories to supply chains.

“Almost all industry at this point is high tech and expects constant, decent internet access,” says Mitchell, of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “And it’s not just about speeds. It’s about reliability. Because if you’re running a trucking company and you lose internet access, you can’t participate in the real-time bidding process, which is how that industry operates.” Farmers, too, use the internet to monitor market prices and weather conditions and to find new markets for their goods. Even so, 29 percent of U.S. farms have no internet access at all.

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down classrooms earlier this year, students without broadband internet found themselves at a huge disadvantage as schools moved to online instruction. But Silverton, Colorado, an isolated mountain town of 700 people, had been connected by Eagle-Net to fiber-optic cable — which proved to be a lifeline.

“We were able to keep all our kids connected,” says Kim White, superintendent of Silverton schools. “We had 100 percent of our kids continue to participate. We were able to do physical education classes, after-school programming, and counseling sessions online. There were lots and lots of opportunities. If we hadn’t had that connection, it would have been paper and pencil packets.”

Learn more about Rotary’s basic education and literacy area of focus.

Eagle-Net installed more than 720 miles of new fiber-optic line. With over 250 miles of existing network upgraded and about 2,000 miles of new network lines leased from other companies, the project is providing connections to 126 “community anchor institutions” such as schools, libraries, and nonprofit health care providers across Colorado. And of the state’s 178 school districts, only 12 schools still are not adequately built out to take advantage of high-speed fiber-optic connections.

“Eagle-Net had a tremendous impact on our school,” White says. “We didn’t have the capacity to have multiple kids on multiple computers online at the same time. We couldn’t stream. We had the equipment to do videoconferencing, but we didn’t have the access. It’s opened up new worlds to us.”

• This story originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Rotary magazine.

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