Across Montana, thousands of students are headed back to school to begin a new year of learning and growth. Unfortunately, many students in rural Montana remain at risk of falling behind due to the lack of broadband access in their communities.

Broadband internet has become indispensable both in the classroom and at home for students to become prepared to compete in the 21st century economy and complete and submit their assignments.

A top priority of the Montana Rural Education Association is to ensure our rural schools and communities are in a position to compete. But the homework gap created by the digital divide is a major concern.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates that 283,000 Montanans do not have access to broadband, but the true number without access is likely even higher. A recent study conducted by Microsoft found more than 720,000 Montanans are not able to access the internet at broadband speeds.

This is a major problem for families and our young people since 70% of teachers assign homework that requires a broadband connection — work that consists of internet research, virtual collaboration and online testing. Without a broadband connection, students in rural communities can quickly fall behind those in suburban and urban areas with greater broadband access.

This is not just a Montana problem. It’s estimated that 6.5 million students nationwide don’t have the broadband internet access required to complete their homework assignments.

The digital divide further strains families and rural communities by holding back small businesses, limiting opportunity, making it harder for farmers to take advantage of technology and preventing access to advancements in telemedicine and remote monitoring.

That is why our association has joined Connect Americans Now (CAN), a coalition of over 200 organizations from Montana and around the country dedicated to bridging the digital divide between rural and urban America. CAN advocates for an all-of-the-above approach to bringing broadband connectivity to rural areas. This means encouraging policymakers in Washington to take a mixed-technology approach to solve this critical issue by utilizing fiber and wireless technologies.

Washington can take action now to clear barriers to innovative tools providers need in their toolkit like TV white space technology — a wireless solution that can greatly reduce the cost and difficulty of deploying broadband access in rural areas with low population densities and challenging topographical features.

The FCC must ensure that regulatory barriers to innovations like TV white space, that could help swiftly eliminate the digital divide, are cleared. CAN recently outlined the issues the FCC can act on now to expand the promise of this technology in a filing co-signed by more than two dozen state and national organizations, including the Montana Chamber of Commerce, Montana Farm Bureau Federation and others.

The thousands of Montanans and the millions of Americans that are living without broadband access, particularly students stuck behind the homework gap, cannot wait any longer.

The FCC has taken many commendable steps to tackle the digital divide and support innovation and both Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines have worked hard to bring greater broadband connectivity to rural areas.

Now, I encourage both our senators to continue their work with the FCC to take up a new rule-making procedure to ensure TV white space technology can be deployed to its full potential to help close the rural broadband gap.

There are thousands of students headed back to school in rural Montana communities who are counting on their leadership.

Dennis Parman is the executive director of the Montana Rural Education Association.