Dr. Carlie Rhoads, seated and smiling, short dark hair and green eyes.

Several weeks ago, Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a major investment in our nation’s infrastructure and competitiveness. We at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) have spent time analyzing how this new legislation affects the millions of Americans living with vision loss. In an earlier post, my colleague examined facets of the legislation regarding transportation. What about education?

There is some good news to share. It has been acknowledged that students are still struggling to get internet across the nation, and there is a new infrastructure law which makes a pandemic-era assistance program permanent. The Infrastructure package includes $65 billion for improving broadband. The majority of that money will go toward expanding networks and improving speed. The current Emergency Broadband Benefit will be turned into a longer-term program called the Affordable Connectivity Program that subsidizes the households’ broadband purchases, though it will have different criteria and subsidizes less of the cost than the previous program.

This law should hopefully continue to assist students across the country, especially those living in rural communities. Additionally, funding will be available to states to address digital equity issues, such as digital literacy and fairness in digital public resources. While this news is very exciting and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move internet access from luxury to an essential infrastructure, there are some potential roadblocks. One of the biggest obstacles to closing the nation’s digital divide is identifying the broadband dead zones where millions of Americans lack fast internet service. Due to insufficient broadband mapping, there seems to be some confusion as to where these dead zones are even located, so many states are unsure where to devote the funding to most effectively address the lack of broadband infrastructure. Therefore, governments will have to spend some of the money in this legislation to coordinate creating accurate maps before completing the projects.

Further, money for some of the projects will not be released for at least another year, which leaves millions of people having to manage finding alternate ways to access jobs, schooling, and commerce, something that is becoming increasingly impossible as so many of these crucial life components require fast and reliable internet access. We know from our Access and Engagement studies that internet connectivity is a crucial issue for our students with visual impairments, their families, and the professionals who serve them, especially with regard to remote learning. If we don’t have consistent, fast internet, then students cannot access their education when using remote learning or just completing homework online, and professionals are unable to adequately support them.

While the infrastructure law that has been signed is promising and providing more funding is a great first step, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to ensure everyone has appropriate access to internet connectivity.

AFB will be examining how this law effects our students with visual impairments, their families, and the professionals who serve them. We are optimistic that eventually, all students, families, and professionals will have access to fast internet and consistent connectivity, even in rural communities.

According to AFB’s own research during the COVID-19 pandemic, many students, families, and educators did not have full and appropriate online access during remote learning. Those children and families who do not have access to the Internet, devices, or have low Internet bandwidth are said to be on the low end of the digital divide. In the second Access and Engagement study, professionals were asked to indicate the percentage of the students they serve who did not have Internet availability, device availability, and/or enough bandwidth. Though 204 (44%) of 465 vision loss professionals reported their students had enough Internet and device availability and bandwidth, 184 (40%) of professionals reported that between 1% and 25% of their students were on the low end of the digital divide.

As one teacher of students with visual impairments (TVI) who was quoted in the report stated, “[My students] do not all have good Internet access, but they have enough to get by. Poor Internet interrupts video lessons. The families that did not have their own devices have had a large learning curve on how to use the technology. The digital divide combined with non-English speakers have put my students at a great disadvantage.”

Here’s to hoping the digital divide is beginning to close.