COLUMBIA, S.C. (WSAV) — As some school districts begin implementing hybrid learning options, many students are still learning remotely.

Experts say the need for better internet access in rural communities is becoming clear as the digital divide worsens.

South Carolina electric cooperatives are urging federal regulators to ensure internet providers bring high-speed access to rural areas.

Members of Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina (ECSC) say the lack of broadband connectivity, compared to urban areas, is deepening disparities in education and the workforce.

“What we see is unemployment, underachievement in our schools,” ECSC President and CEO Mike Couick said. “So many of these things are tied to the lack of quality broadband access.”

The push comes after some providers won a portion of $20.4 billion in federal grants that included new requirements to meet the needs of unserved and underserved areas.

The funding, called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, was established by the Federal Communications Commission to encourage the expansion of high-speed internet access to underserved areas to bridge the digital divide.

Electric cooperatives are urging regulators to build for the future, not the present.

“As co-ops, we look at the need for this connectivity. It’s not an eight or 10-year need. It’s an eight to 10-month need,” Couick said. “Our economy is changing. Our home is going to be a schoolhouse. A home is going to be a place of business for a lot longer. Let’s make sure we get it gigged-up to do both of those things.”

So far, seven South Carolina electric cooperatives are involved in the internet business. Mid-Carolina, Newberry and Aiken electric cooperatives will build a fiber optic system for many electric cooperative-served homes through their internet cooperative, Carolina Connect.

Couick says the state of WiFi connection for many rural counties is not enough to sustain continued remote learning for students.

“The teachers want the students to download the homework,” Couick said. “They don’t have adequate broadband in their home to do it. There’s no communication of work being done, assigned and graded between the student and the teacher. And they just get further and further behind.”

“We’re taking a sub-generation of children and taking years out of their educational opportunities,” he added.

Co-op leaders note that there is little they can do for consumers in areas where they fail to receive adequate broadband service.

They say those people could be left to receive inferior service for the next several years. But it may help to reach out to your representatives if you aren’t able to attend class or work virtually.

“If you’re in a location where you can’t get quality — quality being that you and your children can both be in your home and do your business and have your school — let your local leaders know,” Couick said.