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As a society, we already rely on internet access for education, jobs and personal needs, yet 35.9% of residents in West Virginia don’t have access to internet services, according to a report from BroadbandSearch.net.

Only 83% of West Virginia residents have the ability to access wired or high-speed internet at rates of up to 10 megabits per second (Mpbs), when the average U.S. internet download speed is 93.98 Mbps, according to NCTA, a trade association for broadband and television service providers.

This situation is even more impactful in rural areas of the state, where internet plans are slower and more expensive compared to urban areas. It’s time that we recognize that West Virginia, one of the least broad-banded states in the country, deserves — and requires — equal access to high-speed internet in rural and urban settings, shrinking this hindering digital divide.

Since the onset of the novel coronavirus and the necessity to stay at home, the need for reliable, affordable internet access has been brought to the forefront. With more than 470 Western Governors University students enrolled in the online university in West Virginia, more and more people have found that their remote work and studies requires their household to meet a certain digital threshold.

It’s no secret that online resources are required to retool and up-skill, and high-speed internet access is needed to do so. West Virginia’s talent pipelines undoubtedly will increase with connectivity.

Now more than ever, we must take action to invest in our students’ futures. The digital divide in West Virginia directly affects progress toward social, racial and economic equity. WGU, alongside other online and traditional higher education institutions, is limited in its ability to expand access to education to those who would benefit most, if equitable internet access isn’t addressed.

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To take on these educational and workforce development needs, there needs to be a baseline level of accessibility for all people. In response, Western Governors University will grant high-speed internet access and provide devices to students who need and can’t afford them through its Online Access Scholarship program, which covers the cost of installing and accessing the internet for students who might not otherwise be able to get online.

WGU also is supporting legislators across the country to advance bills that address this crisis and vow to increase high-speed internet access to those who have limited or no connection. Lack of access to broadband services is a barrier to those seeking to fulfill their potential and could have a lasting impact on West Virginia’s future workforce.

WGU’s mission is to increase access to education to underserved populations, and the university has seen firsthand that improving the quality of, and access to, education increases opportunity for those who complete their programs.

This pandemic has opened our eyes to the fact that all industries must be prepared for the unexpected — that we need to be prepared to quickly adjust and have the ability to pivot and provide for what is needed to support the evolving workforce.

If anything, the novel coronavirus has strengthened our resolve at WGU to increase access to education to those who are underserved.

I am urging communities across West Virginia to be more vocal and forthcoming about the need for equal access to broadband internet. Supporting organizations such as the New America’s Open Technology Institute, which offers a list of plans available in West Virginia, and communicating with representatives and leaders who are taking action to find solutions to shrink the digital divide are key steps to ensuring accessibility in urban and rural areas of the state.

Alison Bell is the regional vice president

of Western Governors University,

a nonprofit, online school.

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