CITRONELLE, Ala.—Joshua Edwards's eighth-grade paper about the Black Plague came with a McDouble and fries.
Joshua sometimes does his homework at a McDonald's restaurant—not because he is drawn by the burgers, but because the fast-food chain is one of the few places in this southern Alabama city of 4,000 where he can get online access free once the public library closes.
Cheap smartphones and tablets have put Web-ready technology into more hands than ever. But the price of Internet connectivity hasn't come down nearly as quickly. And in many rural areas, high-speed Internet through traditional phone lines simply isn't available at any price. The result is a divide between families that have broadband constantly available on their home computers and phones, and those that have to plan their days around visits to free sources of Internet access.
That divide is becoming a bigger problem now that a fast Internet connection has evolved into an essential tool for completing many assignments at public schools. Federal regulators identified the gap in home Internet access as a key challenge for education in a report in 2010. Access to the Web has expanded since then, but roughly a third of households with income of less than $30,000 a year and teens living at home still don't have broadband access there, according to the Pew Research Center.
"It is increasingly hard to argue that out-of-school access doesn't matter," said Doug Levin, executive director of a national group of state education technology directors. "There's a degree of frustration about the speed with which we're moving."
Moving faster would be expensive. The Federal Communications Commission assesses a fee averaging $2.50 per household a month on phone bills to pay $4.5 billion a year for building broadband in rural areas and more than $2 billion a year to pay for better connectivity in schools and libraries. The commission says it can make broadband available to all Americans by spending $45 billion over 10 years.
Some are wary of deeper government intervention, arguing that many telecommunications companies are already fast expanding broadband access on their own. "Subsidies should really be targeted narrowly to those that need them," said Randolph May, president of the Free State Foundation, a think tank that advocates for lighter telecom regulation. "That's historically not the way we've done it in communications."
School districts are finding it tough to tackle the digital divide on their own. The Pinconning, Mich., school district worked with Sprint Nextel Corp. to buy smartphones for 100 fifth-graders in 2010 and 2011. Pinconning paid more than $30 per month per device for the phones' data plans, which Sprint says were "very competitive rates." After a year, the cost proved too high for the impoverished rural district, which is a two-hour drive north of Detroit and was hit hard by the auto industry's decline. Now many of the phones are in storage.
As a result, "we have to shy away a little bit from the Internet" in homework assignments, Superintendent Michael Vieau said.
In Alabama's Mobile County, which includes Citronelle, educators say they are aware that lack of Internet access at home can put students at a disadvantage. But they also fear leaving kids unprepared for the real world if they don't emphasize online learning in the curriculum.
David Akridge, the Mobile County Public School System's technology director, says he plans to map the area's free Wi-Fi hot spots and will try to convince local businesses to set up more of them. "That's how we need to do it now," Mr. Akridge says. "But I don't think it's a permanent solution to have everyone go to businesses to do that."
The children and teenagers huddled over their devices at McDonald's Corp. restaurants and Starbucks Corp. coffee shops across the country underscore the persistence of the Internet gap in education. McDonald's has 12,000 Wi-Fi-equipped locations in the U.S., and Starbucks has another 7,000. Together, that is more than the roughly 15,000 Wi-Fi-enabled public libraries in the country.
In Harrison, Mich., the local library is a lifeline for people without home Internet. But it is usually closed by 6 p.m. Once a week, librarian Mary LaValle meets a friend at the nearby McDonald's after work. She says she often sees the same teenagers sharing laptops at the restaurant that use the computers at her library. Usually, the kids will only buy a drink, and the free refills keep them going all night, she says.
To be sure, much of what students get on the Internet still comes in books available free at school or the public library. But many school administrators are purposely pushing kids on the Web. At Burns Middle School in Mobile, Principal John Adams has his teachers assign at least one digital project that requires Internet use per quarter.
The goal, Mr. Adams says, is to teach students "21st-century skills." Teachers typically allot class time for computer use when they require kids to get online, but Mr. Adams acknowledges that those students who have home Internet have the advantage of "unlimited time to pull in more information and fine-tune their digital projects."
McDonald's began rolling out Wi-Fi in its U.S. restaurants years ago. In 2010, McDonald's made it free even for those not buying food, a move soon followed by Starbucks.
Jonah Sigel, who oversees Starbucks's Wi-Fi program, says there is no need to require that Internet users purchase anything.
"Before I started working here I always felt guilty not at least buying a bottle of water" when using the Starbucks Wi-Fi, Mr. Sigel said. "I hope people act similarly."
Many McDonald's franchisees have a similar view. "It's hard to sit there and watch people eat McDonald's french fries and not go buy your own," says Ted Lezotte, a McDonald's franchisee in northern Michigan who owns four restaurants.
In Citronelle, located about 30 miles north of the city of Mobile, 10th-grader Dustin Williams works on social-studies reports and Facebook posts at a McDonald's across the street from the high school. "For research and stuff, a book ain't enough," he said.
Joshua Edwards made multiple visits to the same McDonald's to work on papers this school year. His mother, Linda Edwards, says she already pays a large portion of her monthly budget for telecommunications: more than $150 for cellphones for herself and an older son, and $55 for satellite television, out of a $1,200 Social Security check. She said she couldn't afford the $250 deposit she would need to get satellite Internet for her trailer home off a dirt road about 15 minutes outside Citronelle.
In recent weeks, Ms. Edwards came up with a stopgap measure: for an extra $10 per month, she was able to use an AT&T feature that lets her use her smartphone as a Wi-Fi hot spot. The feature gets her some connectivity, though users doing bandwidth-heavy tasks like watching video over the cellular network can end up with hefty data charges. Ms. Edwards plans to move closer to town later this year and to try to get a landline Internet connection when she does.
For now, she has been taking her children to McDonald's. "If I had a little money I would go buy something [there], but most of the time I didn't," she said.
She has little choice. The local public school system has encouraged teachers to put assignments online and students to use their own devices for school work. Teachers post extra-credit problems and links to educational videos and other resources.
In a Citronelle High School history class recently, five juniors were huddled around laptops and browsing the Web. They were working on a research project their teacher Megan Wiggins had assigned: Create a simulated Facebook profile for a U.S. president.
Some students were racing to get their work done before class ended. If they didn't, they said, they would have to find time to use the Internet later at school or finish up at the library or McDonald's. Other students were sitting at their desks reading or doing pencil-and-paper homework. They were the kids who had Internet access at home.
The U.S. government has been concerned about the digital divide since the Internet came into wide use two decades ago. In 1996, Congress as part of landmark telecom legislation created a program called E-Rate that provided about $2 billion a year to connect schools and libraries to the Internet. But E-Rate didn't cover Internet access at home. In recent years regulators debated whether or not to change that—but settled only on a $10 million pilot program that education leaders don't expect to be expanded without more E-Rate funding being made available.
More recently, regulators under President Barack Obama have made expanding broadband access a priority. But the advanced wireless networks and high-speed Internet connections built by companies like AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and Sprint aren't subject to rules such as the ones that required carriers to make traditional telephone service available to everyone.
Carriers argue that requiring service to all doesn't make sense in a world in which many more options for getting connected—from cable connections to cellphones to satellite dishes—exist than ever before. Regulators agree that old rules need to change but say some regulation is still necessary. The process of updating old rules is just beginning, and fights over how closely the government should regulate new networks are likely later this year.
Industry groups say that companies are doing their part to ensure that more Americans can get online. Several cable companies have started offering Internet service for $9.95 a month to some poor families with children in school.
Larry Irving, a former telecommunications policy official in the Clinton administration who is now a consultant to nonprofits and telecom companies, says that the industry has expanded access across the U.S. in a way that was hard to imagine in the 1990s.
"No one disagrees with the concept of 100% connectivity," he says. "The rub is how do you get there in a way that doesn't distort the market."
Karen Cator, director of the office of educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education, said the department is trying to encourage school districts to band together in their negotiations with phone and cable companies in order to get the best price for Internet connections—including purchasing wireless broadband for students who don't have Internet at home. She is also looking for Washington to invest more in building out broadband infrastructure, as it did as part of the federal stimulus of 2009.
Without more action from the federal government, Ms. Cator said, the effort of broadening Internet access for poor and rural students "would be like building the highways but expecting every community to build their own piece."
That is what some school districts are effectively doing. Baldwin County, Ala., is spending $2.5 million a year to lease Apple laptops for each of its 10,000 high-school students. To make the investment pay off, Superintendent Alan Lee said he is looking into building a wireless network to be run by the school district, a project that has included mapping his county's geography and cell-tower locations.
Mr. Lee applied for a $3.7 million grant from a foundation to install Wi-Fi networks on school buses and in three cities in the district, but the grant funding has been whittled down to $500,000—only enough to try the program in one city.
In Pinconning, population 1,300, Mr. Lezotte, who owns the McDonald's there, said he can tell when exams are coming up by how many kids are gathered at his restaurant using their laptops.
Other Internet users stay in the parking lot, where they can take advantage of the McDonald's Wi-Fi guilt-free and purchase-free.
Jennifer LaBrenz, a single mom who has take-home income of roughly $2,000 a month, a year ago was paying close to $300 a month for home phone and Internet, satellite television and smartphones for herself and her oldest daughter.
To cut costs, she canceled home phone and Internet service. That is why she parked her Suzuki outside Mr. Lezotte's restaurant one evening this fall. While her daughter Olivia was balancing her computer on her lap in the passenger seat, Ms. LaBrenz tapped out a Facebook post on her phone: "Sitting McDonald's parking lot so Olivia can use Wi-Fi to do homework and email her teacher. I love the poor life."