As students across Mississippi get back to school, it is vitally important our policymakers keep in mind those students and families who continue to struggle, stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide.  As the CEO of INCOMPAS, an association that promotes competition, innovation and economic development in network systems, I am particularly concerned how the lack of broadband access in rural Mississippi continues to hold our communities back.  

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates there are 829,000 people living in Mississippi without access to broadband. A recent study from Microsoft found the true scale of the digital divide is likely even larger. The Microsoft study found 2.5 million Mississippians do not access the internet at broadband speeds – meaning only one in six Mississippians do.

Accurately measuring the scale of the digital divide is critical to maximizing efforts to eliminate this impediment, and that’s why I applaud Senator Roger Wicker for introducing legislation and leading the charge to improve how the FCC maps broadband access. Wicker continues a Mississippi tradition of strong and effective leadership in Washington serving as Chairman of the powerful U.S. Senate Commerce Committee.

There are far too many students and families in our state on the wrong side of the digital divide – and Washington simply must keep up the policymaking momentum to encourage expanded broadband access.

In order to prepare our young people to compete in the 21st Century economy, increase opportunity and encourage the next generation of innovators, we must ensure Mississippi students have access to critical resources like broadband internet.

It is estimated at least 6.5 million students nationwide lack access to broadband internet, many in rural communities, but 70 percent of teachers assign homework that requires a broadband connection. Homework is often comprised of a combination of internet research, virtual collaboration and online testing and without access to broadband, students living in rural communities can fall behind their counterparts in suburban and urban areas.

A lack of broadband internet access can also put a tremendous strain on families. Parents without broadband connectivity at home often face little choice but to take their children to fast food restaurants or coffee shops late at night or in the very early morning before school – just to be able to complete or submit their homework assignments and keep up.

We cannot expect our students to form the next generation of innovators, continuing to build upon cloud computing, data store, internet-of-things (IoT) applications and technology if we cannot provide them the basic tools they need to succeed — both in the classroom and beyond.

The FCC has made commendable progress making greater funds available for broadband deployment, putting increased public attention on the problem of the digital divide and working to clear regulatory barriers to innovation – but there is much more to be done to ensure every Mississippi student has broadband access.

In particular, the FCC should continue to take steps to remove barriers to innovative technologies like TV white spaces – a wireless technology to deliver broadband internet service that is particularly well-suited to mixed-technology deployments in rural areas with low population densities or challenging topography.

An organization called Connect Americans Now (CAN), which counts more than a dozen Mississippi organizations among its more than 200 members, has championed the need for an all-of-the-above approach to eliminating the digital divide.

CAN, joined by 25 other groups, recently filed a request that the FCC open a new rulemaking procedure to address the remaining regulatory challenges holding TV white spaces back from reaching its full potential as a tool to expand connectivity.

As thousands of Mississippi students prepare to get back into the swing of school and homework and as many others prepare to head back into the classroom, I encourage the FCC to act on CAN’s request and issue a further notice of proposed rulemaking.

By unleashing the power of technology and innovation, we can take a big chunk out of the digital divide and the rural broadband gap that threaten to hold back these kids and millions of others.

Mississippi residents should be encouraged by the focus and attention our policymakers are giving to this issue – now we need them to continue to fight to see to it that all our students have access to broadband and the opportunities it presents.

Chip Pickering is the CEO of INCOMPAS and represented Mississippi’s Third Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1997 to 2009.