In rural Arizona, internet connectivity – or lack thereof – has hampered student learning for years. And in a state where half of K-12 students attend a rural school, that divide is having a big impact on student growth and achievement.

That’s why the Arizona Rural Schools Association has partnered with the Arizona Association of County School Superintendents and the Arizona Business and Education Coalition to improve internet access for children living in rural areas. The Final Mile Project is identifying locales to build on the existing broadband superhighway that most schools and libraries already use.

While many schools in the state have access to reliable internet, that coverage hasn’t been expanded to homes in the area – this stretch is known as the “final mile.” Unlike metro areas, these rural regions don’t have enough homes in close enough proximity to warrant internet service providers (ISPs) building connections.

With schools and libraries acting as anchor institutions, we at the Final Mile Project are identifying funding sources that will allow us to construct transmission nodes that can broadcast a Wi-Fi signal from the campus. Each node has a radius of 8 miles, so we can provide students in these areas with dependable internet for both virtual learning, and for homework and enrichment once schools return to the classroom.

With Wi-Fi nodes provided by the Final Mile Project, the ISP can then offer general service to everyone in the area for a reasonable market price, while we provide students service at a highly discounted rate.

Even prior to the pandemic, many schools were exploring blended learning options, so it’s unlikely that virtual learning will disappear when the pandemic ends. In today’s world, so much of life happens online that we can’t leave students behind simply because of where they live.

We’ve already vetted six school districts, where one node can cover as much as 80% of the student body. And there are 40 more districts waiting in the wings. Gains will be small at first, but they’ll snowball over time and create opportunities for students all over the state to accelerate their learning. Internet connectivity is an equity issue, and it must be addressed starting today.

Wes Brownfield is a retired school principal and the executive director of the Arizona Rural Schools Association. He’s also on the advisory board for The Final Mile Project.