Evan Marwell is the chief executive of EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit group with the mission of upgrading the Internet infrastructure in K-12 schools for digital learning.

With game-changing technology moving into the classroom, Americans are starting to see a revolution in the way teachers teach and students learn. Schools are leveraging technology to deliver language and science courses that they couldn’t otherwise provide and using tools such as Skype to bring experts and experiences from around the world into the classroom. High-speed broadband is an educational equalizer and a learning accelerator. But today, 40 million of the nation’s K-12 students are being left behind without the Internet access and WiFi they will need to succeed in the global economy.

The typical American school has about the same Internet access as the average American home, with 200 times as many users. As a result, too many children are trying to learn skills for tomorrow with dial-up speeds from the past.

Experts agree that to enable students to take full advantage of digital learning, schools need 100 megabits (Mbps) or more of Internet access today and one gigabit (Gbps) by 2017. Without these speeds, schools can’t leverage the power of video to let kids learn at their own pace or provide teachers with the assessment data necessary to understand the needs of each child.

Around the world, countries are taking action to ensure that their students have the broadband they will need to be competitive in the global economy. Korea leads the way with 100 percent of its schools connected to high-speed broadband. Ireland is poised to deliver 100 Mbps to every school by next year and Finland has made a 100 Mbps connection a legal right by 2015.  Singapore will deliver a one Gbps connection to every school by 2015. New Zealand will have 98 percent of its schools connected to fiber by 2017 and Australia by 2019. It’s no coincidence that all but one of these countries outperform the United States in reading, math and science. These nations understand that in today’s global economy, you need to be wired to get hired.

That’s why President Obama has announced an ambitious new effort called ConnectED to connect 99 percent of American students to high-speed broadband within five years. It will deliver gigabit broadband to every school and WiFi to every classroom. This will empower teachers to spend more time in small-group instruction, provide students with access to one-to-one learning technologies that can be as powerful as a personal tutor and enable parents to participate in their child’s learning. At a time when the rest of the world is trying to out-educate the United States, the country must meet the president’s goal with K-12 networks that last not just for the next semester, or the next school year, but for the next generation.

Fiber optics are the key to upgrading schools’ low-speed, 20th-century copper networks to this high-speed future. Fiber is the only technology that can deliver gigabit speeds to schools and scale to meet their growing bandwidth needs for a generation. And fiber doesn’t just mean blazing-fast education speeds. By investing in fiber today, schools and libraries can dramatically lower their annual bandwidth costs. Fiber is faster, cheaper and future-proof.

The cost of not having fiber, like the cost of ignorance, can be stunning. The median school without fiber pays more than $100 per month for a megabit of bandwidth while those with fiber can pay as little as $1 per megabit. That’s because the low cost of maintaining a fiber connection doesn’t change — whether it delivers 10 megabits or 10 gigabits. If the United States is going to upgrade its schools from the 10 megabits to 20 megabits they have today to the gigabit speeds they need tomorrow, it must leverage the power of fiber to dramatically reduce the cost of bandwidth.

Keeping up with global peers and enabling students to take advantage of digital learning requires that the nation follow the lead of other countries and provide the upfront investment capital to connect schools to fiber and deploy WiFi in every classroom. This investment in infrastructure would create jobs, increase education opportunities and reduce bandwidth costs by as much as 90 percent. The good news is that the nation can pay for a significant portion of this upgrade by redirecting money away from yesterday’s outdated technologies within the Federal Communications Communication’s $2.4 billion-per-year E-Rate program. 

E-Rate has been a hero for U.S. schools — ensuring that almost every student has access to the Internet. In July, the FCC began updating the E-Rate for the 21st century to meet the ConnectED goals. To accomplish this, E-Rate must redirect money to broadband, supplement these savings with a modest one-time investment fund, and increase transparency in the program to ensure the biggest bang for every buck. It also must encourage schools to lower costs by leasing unused fiber from carriers or building school-owned fiber. 

If this were done correctly, imagine what it would mean for a young girl whose rural school was too small to offer advanced-placement classes if she could take one online. Imagine if every inner-city child had access to the same universe of knowledge as the students in the most affluent suburbs.

From coast to coast, in small towns and big cities, those schools with the speed they need are connecting to a new world of education opportunities that engage students in new and innovative ways. At the same time, 40 million American children on the other side of the digital divide stare at an hourglass, cut off from these opportunities, waiting for their future to download.

Special Report | Bridging the Digital Divide