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

Most connected U.S. states

  1. 1

    New Jersey

  2. 2

    New York

  3. 3

    Maryland

  4. 4

    Rhode Island

  5. 5

    Florida

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

    Vermont

  2. 47

    Nebraska

  3. 48

    New Mexico

  4. 49

    Montana

  5. 50

    Alaska

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.”