As schools around the country have been moving towards online and digital tools for completing assignments, Internet access for low income families hasn't kept pace with the country's metro centers where Wi-Fi signals just waft through the air like a refreshing breeze. In Citronelle, Alabama, where the Wall Street Journal went searching for free wireless Internet access, it smells a little bit like french fries.

According to the Pew Research Center, about a third of households bringing in less than $30,000 per year with teenagers at home still don't have broadband access. So students in rural places like Citronelle and Pinconning, Michigan who are without access at home turn to the closest place they can get online for free: the local McDonald's and Starbucks locations.

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.

The fact that we've installed Internet access at more fast food and coffee joints than we have public libraries probably says a lot about the country. In Alabama, one school district that hoped to build a county-wide wireless network could only get enough grant money to connect one city in the school district.

Also, we learned today that Starbucks and McDonald's don't require you to actually purchase anything to get online. So, in a way, those chains are doing these communities a service. Which is giving customers a place to sit in hopes that they buy a scone or some fries. As one Michigan McDonald's franchisee rightly explained, "It's hard to sit there and watch people eat McDonald's french fries and not go buy your own."

In the WSJ's view of Michigan, kids getting all hopped up free soda refills while their peers with expensive Internet at home, we assume, must be eating celery sticks and sipping on fresh-squeezed juices. Back in Alabama, things are more dire: moms park outside of McDonald's while their daughters hover over laptops in the passenger seat like some kind of Cormac McCarthy-meets-Idiocracy scenario. "Sitting McDonald's parking lot so Olivia can use Wi-Fi to do homework and email her teacher," one single mom posted to Facebook, "I love the poor life."

The Obama administration is still pushing for 100% connectivity, but because the big three privately owned telecom companies can't be required to provide home Internet access in the way they had to provide phone service to all.

[WSJ] (subscription)