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Alabama Bill Aims to Expand Wireless Access in Rural Schools

The Alabama House of Representatives has unanimously passed a bill to give $12 million in state funds to small, rural, and low-income school districts to help schools acquire technology and wireless broadband, according to a story by The Anniston Star.

The bill is meant to allow those districts to access federal E-rate funds, which require them to come up with matching funds. According to the article, 91 districts in Alabama have been unable to raise the matching funds to secure federal funding.

In his February State of the State speech, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley highlighted rural Internet access as a priority for the year, according to AL.com.  "Technology is growing at lightning speed, changing the way we educate, deliver healthcare, and even start a business," Bentley said during the speech. "Yet our communities and rural areas cannot tap into the potential that Broadband access would bring."

A recent series by Education Week highlighted the challenges rural schools face when trying to pay for Internet service. Many districts face high costs for slow Internet service that doesn't support online tools or computerized testing. In one Mississippi district highlighted in the series, Internet access cost $9,275 each month for 3 megabits-per-second of bandwidth.

While more than 75 percent of districts nationwide have adequate Internet access, 1 in 5 rural districts don't have access to fiber-optic cables for high-speed Internet, compared to 10 percent of suburban schools and 5 percent of urban schools, according to EducationSuperHighway, a broadband advocacy group.

Nearly 49 percent of schools in Alabama are rural and more than 42 percent of students in the state attend these schools. In Alabama, less than 60 percent of residents have access to high-speed Internet, compared to the national average of 71 percent, according to census data. In 2014, Alabama earned an "F" on a "digital learning report card" published by Digital Learning Now, a group that advocates for more online learning. The ratings were based on whether schools have high-speed broadband, whether teachers and students have Internet-capable devices and whether the state has met certain benchmarks to ensure effective use of technology.

Some rural Alabama districts that have managed to improve Internet access report an increase in course offerings and educational opportunities. In Piedmont, Ala., the district used federal funds from a 2011 E-rate pilot program to build a wireless network over the community that residents can access from public places or from their homes. Students also received an iPad or laptop. 

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