Students work on laptops in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2006. Students in urban and suburban schools often get internet access for less than half the price of their rural counterparts.
Students work on laptops in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2006. Students in urban and suburban schools often get internet access for less than half the price of their rural counterparts. - 

Millions of students around the country might not be able to read this story because their broadband connection is too slow to load it.

In many small rural schools, districts pay thousands of dollars each month for almost-unusable broadband connections. A new report from Education Week uses Calhoun County, Mississippi as a case study. The district has about 2,500 students and is saddled with a three megabit-per-second connection run through outdated copper wiring. To put that in perspective, you can test your own connection — the FCC recommends a household with more than four devices needs six to 15 Mbps for moderate use. In Calhoun, connections are so slow that classes can't do research or take state tests, teachers can't access media or lesson plans and just entering attendance can take a half hour.

For that meager connection, the school district pays $9,275 a month. Just an hour up the road, another school gets 30 times the bandwidth for far less, Education Week notes. This dynamic is far from unique: broadband advocacy group EducationSuperHighway told Education Week the median price for connectivity in rural schools is more than double that of urban or suburban schools. Some of the most remote schools easily shell out many times more.

All this means students run a greater risk of falling behind. One teacher told Education Week she rarely bothers with the school's equipment. Instead she downloads anything she might need at home, then brings it to school on a hard drive. She also maintains a class website that students visit on their phones, circumventing the school's poor connectivity. But all that effort does little to close the technology gap between Calhoun County and students with reliable internet, the report found.

At least one student said she could feel herself falling behind.

"I'm worried that I'll get to [college] and they'll say, 'OK, here's your first research project, go do it,'" Clemmie Jean Weddle, 17, told EdWeek. "And I'm just sitting there, lost, like, 'What am I supposed to do?'"

So how did schools get in this situation? The largest telecoms don't bother with these rural areas, leaving smaller companies to come in and fill the gaps. These providers find themselves with steep overhead but little or no competition. These companies say they charge a fee that corresponds to the cost of building infrastructure to connect far-flung schools, but they also have little incentive from the market or regulators to keep prices down and that leaves schools feeling fleeced, without the know-how to untangle the regulations and bureaucracy underpinning the monopoly, according to Education Week.

The FCC has a program called E-rate, which helps schools and libraries pay for connectivity, and its spending cap was just raised to $4 billion a year. But the program can't always attract competition to these areas, and sometimes it just means high prices for bad service are passed on to the government.

Beyond the additional funds, Education Week notes the FCC is overhauling E-rate rules in a way that could finally give schools the upper hand and push providers to expand service at a fair price. The key change, approved late last year, is giving schools the option to use aid to pay for the construction of new fiber optic networks. Telecoms criticized the move as wasteful and said it would drive them out of rural areas, but the threat of competition is already driving down prices for some districts.

Though rural schools might have a path forward, it's not a guaranteed solution and many are still at a disadvantage because of red tape, Education Week suggests. Still, many schools have reason to be optimistic.

"Until we talked about building our own line, I don't think [the companies] were serious," Calhoun County superintendent Mike Moore told Education Week. "Washington gave us leverage."

Follow Tony Wagner at @tonydwagner