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Rock County’s push for affordable broadband access opens new possibilities for rural students’ virtual learning opportunities.

The Federal Communications Commission’s 2020 Broadband Deployment Report stated that 410,000 Wisconsin residents—398,000 of which live in rural areas—lack access to high-speed broadband service.

Sufficient broadband service is lacking in 53% of Rock County alone. In late February, the Rock County Board of Supervisors started a concerted push to provide all Rock County residents with reliable and high-speed internet access.

“I have little trust in the state government getting anything done,” Rock County Board Supervisor Alan Sweeney said. “And that’s why we’re handling it locally. We’re even going to go more local than that. We’re going to ask the towns to be involved.”

Efforts to increase broadband access are eligible for funding through the American Rescue Plan Act, also known as the federal COVID-19 stimulus package.

The push for accessible broadband by Rock County and other counties and communities would particularly benefit school-age residents.

UW-Madison professor Richard Halverson, who studies how technology shapes learning, said access to virtual environments is access to learning opportunities beyond classroom walls.

“It gives you a tremendous leg up,” Halverson said. “Not only do you have access to other forms of expertise, but you also know how to use it in the midst of your academic work.”

Dr. Henry Jenkins, Halverson’s colleague at University of Southern California, said unequal access to the virtual learning technology creates a “participation gap.” This gap lies between the people who might already have devices that can connect them to virtual learning spaces and the people who actually know how to use their devices for academic purposes.

Rock County’s push for affordable broadband access could shrink the participation gap and grow equal education opportunities for rural students in the years to come.

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