(TNS) -- It’s after dark, and Angel Banegas sits in the parking lot at Hatch Valley High School. Angel, a sophomore, has a homework assignment that’s due at midnight, and this is the only way he’s able to turn it in.

“Better internet would help tremendously in our community,” Angel said. “Personally, I do not have any type of internet at home. When we have assignments, such as typed essays, I am not able to work on the assignment at home. I'm sure that other students in the Hatch community have this problem as well.”

While 96 percent of Americans in urban areas have access to fixed broadband, only 70 percent of New Mexicans have broadband access at home. In rural communities, the problem is even worse — only one in three can access the internet at home.

“Unfortunately, the digital divide is a very real barrier to success in our community,” said Audra Bluehouse, an English teacher at Hatch Valley High. “We are very fortunate to have a school district that supports technology in the classroom and provides extended computer lab hours, one-to-one access to laptops and desktops, and online learning resources for teachers to enrich their curriculum and lesson plans.”

The Hatch Valley schools receive the FCC’s E-Rate initiative, which reimburses schools and libraries for expenses related to internet access. However, students may have no internet access when they get home. Some students reportedly do their homework in the parking lot at Pic Quik, which offers free Wi-Fi access. Others spend long hours studying in the computer labs at the Doña Ana Community College Hatch Learning Center, adjacent to the high school.

“Before the DACC (Learning Center) was created in our town, students would have to stay after school to finish any assignments due that day,” said Anette Rascon, a sophomore at Hatch Valley High. “This would actually take hours due to the slow internet. Many of the students would get frustrated and give up on their work because the computers took an eternity to process one simple task.”

Rascon said she knows students who got in trouble “because they got home so late all because they were trying to get their work done.”

'Parking-lot work'

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., visited Hatch last week, and brought with him Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. Udall said he wanted her to see firsthand what life is like for students in New Mexico’s rural communities.

“They’re being taught on computers, they do their homework on computers, but if you can’t connect to the internet at home, then you have to come to the parking lot to turn it in,” Udall said. “That’s what the homework gap is all about. These are pretty unusual circumstances. It’s called homework; it’s not called parking-lot work.”

Udall said there is an enormous disparity between urban and rural communities, in terms of internet access.

“We see that in Hatch, we see it in Garfield, and in the other small communities around Doña Ana County,” he said. “What we’re trying to bring home is the idea that, if we get everyone interconnected, our economy does better, our businesses do better and our people do better.”

Udall said he is working in Washington, D.C., with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to push the internet into more rural communities.

“We’ve brought millions of dollars into New Mexico in order to get that interconnectivity, and we’re going to keep pushing for that,” Udall said. “It’s a tough battle, because you have so many of these remote communities, very sparsely populated, and it’s very expensive to get the internet out there. We just have to keep pushing the envelope on technology, and innovating to try to find ways to make sure they get interconnected.”

Udall said he believes providing internet access to New Mexico’s small communities could be the determining factor in whether they thrive or wither.

The homework gap

Rosenworcel said it has always been a challenge to get internet access to rural areas. The “homework gap” is putting thousands of students at risk of falling behind their peers simply because they don’t have internet access at home.

“It used to be that paper and pencil were probably sufficient for doing your homework at night, if you could find a clear space on the table and have your siblings leave you alone,” Rosenworcel said. “But now, you really need an internet connection, or some form of connectivity. Seven in ten teachers now assign homework that requires internet access. And data from the FCC shows that one-in-three households do not have internet access, and those households are disproportionately low-income and rural.”

Bluehouse said improving home internet access in Hatch would be a game-changer.

“Many students turn to their smart phones when WiFi slows down or when they have limited access,” Bluehouse said. “But if students were able to access reliable broadband in their homes it would change and extend our educational landscape beyond campus grounds and really create vital foundations for so many students in their educational endeavors.”

Internet in more homes

There are 29 million homes in the U.S. with school-age children, according to the Pew Research Center. Five million of those have no internet access.

“I heard some incredible stories in Hatch,” Rosenworcel said. “I heard from students who go to their aunt’s house, or their grandparents’ house to do their homework, and they have to schedule their days around where they have internet access. And, of course, we heard from students who do homework in the school parking lot late at night. It upsets me, because I’ve heard stories like that across the country, and this is a problem we need to solve.”

She said programs such as CenturyLink’s $9.95 home internet service, available to households with students that qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, are a good start to expanding access.

“We also have a program through the FCC called LifeLine, which we recently updated,” Rosenworcel said. “It’s been around since 1985, and it has traditionally been used to provide telephone service to low-income households. Within the next year, it could alternatively be used to support broadband.”

Rosenworcel has seen schools across the country get really creative in ways they address this problem.

“I’ve seen some rural school districts in Kentucky and Alabama and California that are putting WiFi routers on their school buses, and turning ride time into connected time,” Rosenworcel said. “There are libraries that are loaning out wireless hotspots, which can mean the difference for students between staying up in class or falling behind. There are creative solutions that are bubbling up at the local level to address this problem.”

Rosenworcel said digital equity is one of the defining issues of our time.

“Broadband is the great equalizer,” she said. “It is a democratizing force for information and knowledge all across the world. If you think about it, with high-speed connectivity, anyone with a good idea — in Hatch, or anywhere else — could have global reach. And I think it all starts with homework, and addressing this homework gap.”

In search of a signal

Anette Rascon said better internet access would help with her Advanced Placement coursework.

“Having faster, stronger WiFi would help me at home, because this could enhance the ability to work longer on my academics,” Anette said. “Especially when it comes to my AP classes — I need all the help I can get from wherever I can get it. The internet is one of the biggest and most popular sources of helpful information.”

Bluehouse, who coaches volleyball, said she has seen students turn their smart phones into digital hotspots during out-of-town trips, so that their peers can turn in homework assignments and avoid falling behind.

“While we may criticize students for being tethered to their phones, we have to also realize that the reality of the digital lifestyle affects us all, and we need to turn that connectivity into something purposeful and powerful when it comes to opportunities to learn and engage with their academics,” Bluehouse said.

©2016 the Las Cruces Sun-News (Las Cruces, N.M.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.