It’s time to close the digital divide.

By Dr. Kiesha Taylor, National Education Administrator, T-Mobile

With so many school districts around the country working feverishly to implement distance learning programs, there is no better time to talk about the digital divide and a student’s right to education.

While the term "digital divide" can be used to describe many instances in which marginalized kids and those that require assistive technologies do not have access to the technologies that they need to stay competitive with their more affluent peers around the world, what I want to address in this article are the millions of K-12 students across the United States who don’t have internet access at home.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ Condition of Education 2019 report, in 2017 just 49% of families making less than $20,000 a year had home internet access. And of the families who didn’t have home internet access, 34% said they could not afford it. That's three million students. To put this number into perspective, this would be like shutting down internet access to the entire state of Nevada.

We have to figure out how to bridge this gap or these kids will continue to fall further and further behind. And, with so many of our students struggling to finish out the academic year from home simply because they lack internet access, now is exactly the right time to not only be talking about the digital divide but, more importantly, to be doing something about it.

Amid nationwide school closures due to COVID-19, we’ve all witnessed the outpouring of support from school districts, as well as businesses like T-Mobile, Zoom, and Schoology, to support marginalized kids with things like free Wi-Fi usage, lowered prices, and free conferencing services. And now we need to build on these efforts to address the chronic, underlying problem.

COVID-19 has shown us that digital equity isn’t some future-state to be addressed at some ambiguous date down the road. The current inequity needs to be addressed today. Not because of the next pandemic or natural disaster but, because, when the outpouring of goodwill comes to an end, many of these students will still be at a disadvantage compared to their classmates. This disparity has negative consequences for all of us.

In today's world, internet access is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity. Just as students cannot learn without proper shelter, nutritious food, and safe spaces, neither can they learn without the right tools. This isn’t an academic exercise: when these students leave school they will be ill-prepared to achieve in a fast-moving world dominated by digital technologies and constant change.

In today's world, internet access is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity. Just as students cannot learn without proper shelter, nutritious food, and safe spaces, neither can they learn without the right tools.

Another important development driving this discussion is the future of nationwide 5G. The promise of this technology is well documented and, when fully implemented in the coming years, it will dramatically change how people live, work, learn, and play.

With greater bandwidth and lower latency, the biggest impact the 5G era may have on education is the potential to engage in real-time immersive learning experiences both inside and outside of the classroom regardless of location or time of day. This can be achieved through presence technologies like video conferencing, augmented reality, and virtual reality today but, eventually when mobile devices are coupled to hyper-speed networks, this will give students access to a whole new world of experts and knowledge that are just not available today.

Because the future of 5G is not bound by the limitations of geography, it can serve as the primary backhaul technology—the virtual girders, trusses, cables, and concrete—to one day build the bridges so many need to cross the digital divide. But unless we act, millions of students will be, once again, left out of this equation. This isn’t something we, as a nation, can afford to let happen.

At T-Mobile, we’re committed to doing our part through Project 10Million*—a program designed to help eradicate the homework gap by offering free service, hotspots, and reduced-cost devices to 10 million households over five years. This is just one example of how private and public sectors alike can—and should—invest in American students. Finding the resources to bridge the digital divide will have hard costs, but the resulting benefits for today’s kids and future generations will far outweigh those costs. Time and again it’s been proven that education is the one investment society can make that truly lifts all boats.

What COVID-19 has shown us is that we need to actively diversify learning experiences and instructional environments without waiting for another emergency to force our hands. We are tasked with reimagining the everyday workflow of our schools so that our kids can learn more efficiently and effectively using the innovative technology that works best for their generation.

And, if there is a silver lining to all of this (and I know that is a big "if"), it’s the fact that we can ALL now see, with glaring clarity, where the disparities in our system are and, more importantly, how to fix them. We have the technologies, we have the knowledge, and we have the need. Now is the time to fit all of those pieces together to form a solution.

As the country works through the impacts of COVID-19, how we respond to close the digital divide must be rooted in innovation and disrupt the status quo. Mobile technologies like emerging 5G, as well as others that have yet to be developed, will begin to lay a new educational foundation—and better opportunities—for all American kids.

To learn about resources for kids in your own community, visit T-Mobile for Education.

Originally published on Forbes.com.

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