MARIETTA, Ohio — Families without high-speed internet service are missing more than just the ability to download a movie or other entertainment. Every day they miss out on another opportunity — to do important tasks such as finish homework, apply for a job or operate a home business. If your house is in a digital dead zone, you’re not alone. In rural communities around the country, nearly a fourth of the population — more than 14 million people — lacks access to affordable, high-speed internet service, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Appalachian youth are greatly affected by what is referred to by broadband advocates as the “homework gap.”
Jamey Jones, single mother of a sixth grader and rising high school senior from Meigs County, Ohio, is especially concerned about her children’s disconnect with their schools.
“So much online interaction is required by schools now like portals to check grades, homework assignments and study guides for finals.
We have zero internet where we live and no reliable way to get it. After school I haul my kids around to libraries, restaurants and sometimes just bring them back to my office for them to get their homework done. We are exhausted by the time we return home because it’s a half hour drive, and then we get up early to do it all over again,” said Jones in a news release. Jones is not alone. Library parking lots are often full after hours with children doing their homework on laptops in their parents’ cars. Fast food restaurants are another popular homework place.
“I don’t always feed them there because that wouldn’t be a good idea, but many nights I pile the kids in the car and we head to the local burger place to get their homework done,” according to Shawna Roberts in Belmont County, Ohio.
The homework gap and other issues faced by families with subpar connectivity will be discussed at a Town Hall on July 18 at Marietta High School with FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. The Commissioner will be there listening to citizens describe ways that the lack of broadband access affects their community as part of her national listening tour, “Connecting Communities: Bridging the Communications and Opportunities Divide.” The event begins at 6 p.m. with doors opening at 5 p.m. The event is open to everyone. The town hall format will be informal, with Clyburn addressing the audience and then listening to those who have connectivity issues, concerns and complaints. She has been a champion of widening broadband connectivity nationwide, and she hopes to hear from residents, business owners, school administrators, town council members, health-care workers, and anyone else who wants to share their story.
If you have a story you’d like to share in advance of the event, please contact the town hall organizers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 740-274-1146. The town hall will cap a day of workshops and panels in which county officials and community leaders from across Appalachia brainstorm ways to get their communities connected. For more information on either the summit or town hall, go to www.ruralassembly.org/broadband-marietta.
Information provided by Liz Shaw, one of the town hall organizers.
RALEIGH — The newest member of Robeson County’s state General Assembly delegation has put his name to two pieces of legislation he believes will help improve the county’s economic climate. Sen. Danny Britt, a freshman Republican, is co-sponsoring Senate bills 126 and 65. One piece of legislation would increase the amount of local option sales tax revenue rural counties get from the state. The other would improve digital infrastructure in rural counties.
Robeson County currently receives $1.04 per $1 of local sales tax revenue sent to the state government. Under SB 126, Robeson receive $1.10, an increase in real terms of just under $2 million a year. Robeson County currently generates about $17 million in sales tax revenue annually.
“Basically, the idea is that the majority of folks in rural areas are not doing our shopping locally,” Britt said. With stores in metropolitan areas attracting more shoppers from rural areas, less sales tax revenue is being generated in rural counties, and SB 126 aims to balance the tax revenue scale.
“They are getting more of our tax dollars because they are spent there,” Britt said. “We are trying to get those moneys back home.”
Under the plan, counties would be grouped into three development tiers based on four factors: unemployment rate, median household income, population growth and median house value. Robeson County is in tier one with 39 of the poorest North Carolina counties. These counties would receive $1.10 per $1 of sales tax paid to Raleigh. The 40 second-tier counties would come out even, while the wealthiest 20 counties would keep 90 cents on the dollar of sales tax revenue.
The extra money that would come into Robeson County would help fund economic development projects, County Manager Ricky Harris said.
“We have several projects going that it would help, including the BB&T building remodeling. It would just help us overall with all the projects we are working on,” Harris said. The fight in Raleigh will be between rural counties and more metropolitan counties, Britt said.
“I’m hoping we don’t have the resistance we had last time,” Britt said. “Last time we had a governor from Mecklenberg County. I think 80 of the counties are considered rural; 20 urban. As far as the makeup of the House and the Senate, I see us getting a fight but I see us pushing it through.
This definitely seems to favor the rural counties, and rural counties make up the majority of who represents us in the House and Senate.”
Senate Bill 65 would bring improved broadband capability to the state’s 80 rural counties, which would will benefit from partnerships between private and public entities that lead to enhanced internet capabilities and and access.
“The immediate gains are the doors that we open,” Britt said. “More about the doors we can open for students to have access; the doors for commerce to open. It has the opportunity to lead to a lot of really good things for rural N.C.; for opening up the access to broadband and economic development.”
The BRIGHT Futures Act, as the bill is named, incorporates physical and technological infrastructure. BRIGHT is an acronym for broadband, retail online services, internet of things, grid power, health care, and training and education. From textbooks becoming tablet-based ebooks in classrooms and a growing demand for access to distance learning, access to reliable broadband becomes a more important part of life, Britt said.
“If you don’t have good internet access it’s difficult to do your homework,” he said. The bill would fund improvements through state loans and incentives to private companies to develop infrastructure.
“It is really the only way to do it in rural counties,” Britt said. “The distances that have to be covered.”
There is money available for funding the loans and incentives, Britt said.
The exact funding will be decided as the bill moves through committees.
Reach Mike Gellatly at 910-816-1989 or via Twitter @MikeGellatly