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Internet access is no longer optional for a community’s ability to succeed and our leadership’s attitude must reflect that.

Growing up in rural Virginia, tucked in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I never considered the internet to be an essential tool in my life. Sure, the 2010s saw social media slowly boom and virality just beginning — but accessing either one of those things wasn’t something I needed.

It wasn’t until I started high school that my district introduced laptops to the curriculum. Suddenly, something considered a luxury became a necessity. I saw firsthand how inequitable access to the internet impeded academic achievement and long-term success within the system. 

When I began college and became actively involved in political campaigns across the Shenandoah Valley, I saw the same pattern emerging. There was a clear and critical need for broadband access in rural communities — far beyond the school system. 

I was excited to learn that there were progressive campaigns in and around my home championing a right that’s solely unique to the 21st century. When COVID-19 shut down the world, the world continued online. It left too many people behind. 

Some school districts have been forced to park mobile hotspots in parking lots so that students can submit their work digitally. These hotspots aren’t 100% effective, and many students still struggle to stay afloat in this new, uncharted experience. This is only increasing the already existing achievement gap between high- and low-income communities. Rural households don’t have the representation they need, locally or federally. 

Jennifer Kitchen is trying to change that. Kitchen’s one of the many progresive grassroots campaigns that’s starting to define rural Virginia. Kitchen said, "Broadband isn't always the sexiest issue, but it's crucial and intersectional. Universal broadband would provide better accessibility, health care, employment opportunities and economic potential for our entire region. No other development could have so many beneficial results."

"The biggest threat to the survival of rural Virginia is our lack of reliable internet,” Kitchen also mentioned. “Without it, our businesses can't compete, our students can't learn and our residents can't access convenient healthcare. If we want to save the rural lifestyle, we must have rural broadband." 

Kitchen’s campaign highlights the most pressing issues in rural communities. It’s not that solutions don’t exist. It boils down to the fact that providing internet to these communities isn’t financially rewarding. In other words, there’s no market incentive to fix the problem. 

There needs to be a change in leadership's understanding that access to reliable and affordable internet is no longer a luxury — it’s a necessity for families to survive and thrive in a post-pandemic world. 

Electricity faced the same shift in the 1930s — it’s no longer a privilege reserved for the elite, but a public utility for all. COVID-19 has highlighted the vast inequalities that exist between Americans. Economic class or geographic location shouldn’t determine a child’s access to education or a family’s access to opportunity. 

Summer Conley is a junior public policy and administration major. Contact Summer at conleysr@dukes.jmu.edu.