By Heather Russo
Public school districts in Cherokee, North Carolina struggle with connectivity to broadband in rural areas despite the popular tourist attractions and mountainous terrains.
Jeana Conley, superintendent of the Cherokee County School District said the lack of broadband access inhibits student success.
“What we find is that students who don’t have access to the internet typically shy away from classes where they know that it’s a need,” said Conley. “They just don’t want to put themselves in that position.”
The Federal Communications Commission defines a broadband connection as having a minimum download speed of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and a minimum upload speed of 3 Mbps. In Cherokee County, the average download speed is 17.6 Mbps.
The superintendent said Cherokee County needs a full analysis and correct mapping in order to identify the town’s infrastructure.
The main source of data collection to support broadband expansion in the North Carolina Broadband Survey. This source allows people to report which locations have sufficient internet connection, putting the responsibility of mapping efforts on citizens and local community organizations.
“What we need is reliable access and that’s going to take some assistance from providers and outside support,” Conley said.
While the entire state is concerned with broadband access, Cherokee County specifically deals with connectivity issues due to the rural population According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), an area is considered rural if it contains a population of fewer than 2,500 residents.
The superintendent said although all schools in the district have fiber connections, most homes outside of the city limits can’t get a connection because it isn’t available.
According to the Fiber Broadband Association, the reliability of fiber connections provides more advantages compared to older technologies because it allows connection without using other networks to do so.
Conley said students were at a serious disadvantage during the pandemic.
“I have to believe that if we had access to broadband at the time, the issues and trauma would have been lessened significantly,” the superintendent said.
Conley said prior to the pandemic, participation online wasn’t required because teachers recognized most students didn’t have access to broadband at home.
“However, that was very difficult during the pandemic because that was the only connection we had with a lot of students,” said Conley. “We attempted to offer the paper packets to students, but it was a poor substitute.”
The Cherokee County Schools equipped their school buses with Wi-Fi to provide a space for students to do their coursework.
“We tried to manage, but it forced us to change the way we teach,” said Conley.
The superintendent said people assume the lack of connectivity is due to financial reasons but only accounts for a small amount of the population.
“No matter how much your household brings in, there is no amount of money that can get internet access to homes beyond the city limits,” Conley said. “It really hampers a teacher’s ability to keep everyone level and the family’s ability to communicate.”
Career and Technology Director in Cherokee County, Justin Clapsaddle, creates education programs in schools to help kids be viable and employable in the 21st century.
Clapsaddle said there are a number of skills kids aren’t gaining because they don’t have access to the internet at home.
“Using pencil and paper is good, but is also limited,” the career director said. Clapsaddle said upper-level courses such as nursing and CNA programs are web-based.
“We have to provide other ways to study which may not be as effective,” Clapsaddle said.
When preparing educational programs, Clapsaddle said they must consider at-home capabilities standard equipment requires.
“It really limits the teacher’s ability to provide at-home practice and the student’s ability to participate without some kind of alternative assignment,” the career director said. “That’s just not really fair to the student.”
Clapsaddle said citizens can help by supporting local politicians and the new Growing Rural Economies with the Access to Technology (GREAT) grant. According to the Division of Broadband and Digital Equity (NCDIT), the GREAT grant provides state-funded grants to providers to expand broadband in unserved areas of NC.
The director said most people have problems connecting to broadband even a mile away from the city.
“I live close to town and it’s even a challenge to get broadband to my house,” Clapsaddle said.
“It’s pretty sad that a kid’s destiny is dictated by whether or not they have broadband,” Clapsaddle said. “The amount of kids throughout our area who have decided ‘I don’t want to pursue that because I don’t have access’ and they settle. I don’t want kids to settle, I want kids to have goals and have the ability to accomplish them.”
Tim Radford, Mayor of Murphy, North Carolina said broadband should be considered a utility.
“Broadband is so critical for people working remotely,” the mayor said. “In order to do so, we have to have that infrastructure.”
Radford said the new GREAT grant will provide resources needed for students and give Cherokee County the opportunity to partner with providers who support broadband expansion.
Radford owns a local radio station in Cherokee, where he experiences constant lagging.
“Getting in areas where you’re getting the buffering, it’s not conducive to business or education,” the mayor or Murphy said. “A lot of our county is without even a connection; and those that can connect, the speeds are so slow, it’s almost nothing.”