This Community Set Out to Bridge the Digital Divide
Slow internet was hindering students in one Eastern Kentucky county, so the community came together to do something about it.
January 21, 2020
Inside the Leslie County Area Technology Center, a brick rotunda building located next to Leslie County High School in Appalachian Eastern Kentucky, Doug Napier’s information technology students toiled away on one of their most important projects yet.
They were programming a fleet of miniature computers known as Raspberry Pis, each about the size of a deck of cards and housed inside old video game consoles. Their purpose? To get an accurate record of average internet speeds of Leslie County households over a 72-hour period.
These speed test computers are still being used in an ongoing project led by Frank Baker, the information-technology (IT) coordinator at the local Hyden Citizens Bank and a lifelong resident of Leslie County. Frank is a man who wears many hats: volunteer firefighter, Shriner, board member of numerous nonprofits, and volunteer IT coordinator for various local community causes, including the effort to expand internet access, which is what brought him to Doug’s class.
Frank and Doug showed students how to load custom code onto each Raspberry Pi, which would then record internet speeds in real time via Google Analytics simply by plugging the device into a home’s router. This speed test assignment was a fun way for the students to get hands-on IT experience, but Frank’s project had a deeper meaning for them.
That’s because in Leslie County, a county of about 11,000 people nestled in the rugged mountains of Eastern Kentucky, the options for residents seeking reliable, high-speed internet are few and far between. For many families in Leslie County, their internet is too slow to reliably support video chatting, telecommuting, HD video streaming, and other online activities that most take for granted.
With the help of the students, word quickly spread about the project, and Frank was able to get some initial data on Leslie County’s broadband access. “The kids were telling their parents about it. They would get the devices and just pass them from owner to owner, house to house,” Frank says.
This is just one example of the type of homegrown solutions that rural communities like Leslie County are developing in response to the digital divide that is hindering education and economic opportunities in the region. It’s a problem that seemingly the entire community is invested in fixing.
“The community wants a change not only for themselves, but for future generations,” Frank says. “We need high-speed internet here to be able to keep people in the county and not moving out to find jobs and education elsewhere.”
The Broadband Gap is an Equity Issue
Most rural households are able to access the internet in some form—if not by cable, then by satellite, dial-up, or mobile. But that doesn’t mean their internet is fast enough to handle essential online activities for school or work. This is what’s known as a rural broadband gap or the homework gap.
Unlike their urban and suburban peers, students in Appalachia often must go to great lengths to get their homework done and stay connected to online communities. This can mean using mobile hotspots or the Wi-Fi at local restaurants—or even heading up a mountain in search of a workable signal.
Teachers like Lydia Weiso also have to work around unreliable internet to ensure their students are getting the education they need and deserve. Lydia moved to Leslie County in 2018 to join Teach For America and currently teaches English. Much like her students, Lydia has slow internet at home, so she has to do the bulk of her classroom prep and planning work via the internet at the school. But even that’s not a perfect solution.
“Here at the school specifically, we have what is considered high-speed internet... but it's what was considered high speed maybe eight or nine years ago,” Lydia explains. “It’s not fast enough for what the year 2019 requires it to be.”
Leslie County High School is a 1:1 school, which means all students have Chromebooks they can use in class to learn. While the high school’s internet works well when a few students are on the network, it becomes strained by the demands of educational technology games like those on Google Classroom when all the students in a classroom are using their Chromebooks at once. It can become downright unstable during school-wide state testing, and during these high-stakes exams, the internet sometimes crashes.
Lydia tries as much as possible not to assign work that requires using the internet outside of school hours. She structures her curriculum to include time for computer assignments, and encourages students to complete their homework during this time in class. She prints out lesson packets for students to take home during snow day closures, which happen frequently in the winter when the county’s small mountain roads get snowed-in—sometimes more than 40 days a year. These are just some of the logistics Lydia is always juggling as a teacher in order to be equitable to students without reliable internet at home.
Staying Connected Takes a Community
For the assignments that require extra use of the internet outside of classroom time, or for personal projects, students look to public access points for reliable Wi-Fi.
One of the more popular options in Leslie County is The Well, a sun-drenched café with cozy armchair seating, hearty deli sandwiches, and a trendy blackboard wall that lists just about any specialty flavor you could imagine adding to your coffee, including chocolate turtle and birthday cake.
The café is operated by the nonprofit Big Creek Missions, so all of The Well’s proceeds go to support the adjacent food pantry, which helps hundreds of local families. Mary Lewis, the volunteer and donation coordinator and head of the financials at Big Creek Missions, says the free Wi-Fi draws many students and study groups.
“The coffee shop uses a lot of volunteers to staff it, so a lot of the high school kids love it. They get back to school and say, ‘Hey, there's free Wi-Fi at the coffee shop,’ so a lot of kids will turn and come up and they set up to do their homework,” Mary says. “We even have nursing students from the hospital come down.”
Public access points like The Well can be a lifeline to students without internet at home. But as the world becomes ever more digital, it is inevitable that more school assignments will require extended internet use beyond what local businesses can offer.
The Psychological Impacts of the Digital Divide
One of the most difficult things about Lydia’s job isn’t having to work around unreliable internet. It’s witnessing the toll she sees this lack of access taking on her students on a daily basis.
“You see students getting discouraged while they're testing,” Lydia says. “You see students getting discouraged when they're trying to complete a project and it takes them an extra long time.”
For students, the rural broadband gap means so much more than the inconvenience of not being able to complete assignments at home. It harms their self-esteem and causes them to internalize harmful stereotypes about the region in which they live.
“They look at how long it takes to accomplish even a minor task that in another place would be instant,” Lydia says. “They see that almost as this larger vision of, ‘Well, we just live in the mountains, and we live in the backwoods and this is just how we live. We don't have the good life that people might have in other places.’”
“I think it really contributes in a small way but in a meaningful way to those identity challenges that some of my students have with feeling disconnected from the rest of the world,” she adds. “Their feeling like somehow they get less or even deserve less than people who are from other places, which is troubling.”
Proving What’s Possible for Students in Appalachia
This notion of “deserving less” is one that Robert Roark works hard to reject on a daily basis as the principal of Leslie County High School and a proud Kentuckian with roots in Leslie County stretching back over 200 years.
The walls of Leslie County High School are plastered with signs featuring positive affirmations assuring students that college isn’t a dream: It’s a plan. The school also has a dual-credit program, helping students—many of whom would be the first in their family to pursue higher education—to get a head start on earning college credits.
“Our kids kind of see us as underdogs. There's a lot of stereotypes,” Robert says. “We want to break those, and I think we're trying to do that at the high school.”
Robert pushes his students to apply to Ivy Leagues schools and to believe they have a shot of getting in—and that they belong at those schools just as much as anyone. Last year, one of Robert’s students got accepted to Yale.
Robert takes pride in accomplishments like these, when his students achieve great things despite the lack of reliable internet access in the county. His bigger challenge is ensuring that high-achieving students have the opportunity to cultivate their gifts and talents in Leslie County, instead of going elsewhere. With the sustained downturn of industry in Appalachia, there simply aren’t enough stable and lucrative jobs to go around.
“A lot of people think, ‘Get an education and leave, there's nothing here.’ We can't have that mentality,” he says. “We need our own doctors, we need our own nurses, we need our own teachers, if we're going to improve our way of life here and the community.”
“A lot of people think, ‘Get an education and leave, there's nothing here.’ We can't have that mentality. We need our own doctors, we need our own nurses, we need our own teachers, if we're going to improve our way of life here and the community.”
The Challenges of Expanding Broadband in Eastern Kentucky
Like Robert, many in rural America dream of the opportunities high-speed internet could bring to their communities. They could enjoy the economic boost of remote work and the medical benefits of telemedicine. Their young people wouldn’t have to choose between being successful professionals and being invested in their community.
“A lot of people here, we love to tinker and build things and work with our hands from painting and drawing and wood design to graphic design. We have video engineers,” Frank says. “But we lack the broadband that allows us to compete with the rest of the world.”
Unfortunately, areas like Leslie County have been left waiting for years for the promise of high-speed internet. That’s because America’s rural broadband gap crisis is a deeply complex issue, and one that cannot be easily solved by one person or one community alone.
There are a few factors contributing to the digital divide, and they vary by region. In Eastern Kentucky, the picturesque mountain ranges pose a logistical challenge to internet service providers attempting to lay down fiber-optic cables underground or install broadband utility poles above the Appalachian peaks. This, along with Eastern Kentucky’s low population density, creates a lack of incentive on the part of internet service providers to invest in the region’s broadband infrastructure.
The Leslie County Fiber Board
Leslie County can’t continue to wait for high-speed internet to come to the county. That’s why the Leslie County Fiscal Court, which saw the vital importance of high-speed internet, founded the Leslie County Fiber Board in 2016. The Fiber Board works with state and federal agencies to help bring fast and reliable internet connection to homes and businesses in Leslie County. Many of the county's community leaders are key members of the Fiber Board, and Frank Baker is its vice chairman.
It takes a connected community to get these game-changing efforts off the ground—not just in Leslie County, but across Eastern Kentucky.
One ongoing project to expand internet access in Eastern Kentucky is a bipartisan state-run project called KentuckyWired. The project’s goal is to build 3,000 miles of fiber optic cable loops through every county in Kentucky, with a focus on connecting government buildings, schools, libraries, and other essential institutions.
By taking care of the “middle mile” of Kentucky’s internet network, the government hopes more internet service providers will come in and build out the “final mile” that connects homes in Eastern Kentucky to the high-speed wired internet that runs through the state. This would provide more options, faster internet, and lower prices to the residents of Eastern Kentucky.
However, the project has come under criticism for numerous delays and for exceeding its budget. And even when KentuckyWired is finally completed, it could take another 10 years or more until the "final mile" of infrastructure is fully built out, especially for families who live deeper in the mountains. This has left some in the region doubtful that KentuckyWired will ever deliver on its promise to bring high-speed internet to remote communities.
In the meantime, Frank and the Fiber Board are focusing locally and betting on the speed test box with those Raspberry Pis as a way to get the grants needed to secure funding for internet expansion projects within Leslie County.
According to the Frank Baker’s August 2019 report using his speed test boxes, a total of 69 tests showed that most households in Leslie County only received between 1 and 9 megabits per second (mbps) download speeds. For comparison, the average internet download speed in the U.S. in 2018 was a swift 96.25 mbps, and the Federal Communications Commission has defined the“minimal broadband speed” as 25 mbps download.
With help from Leslie County Community Foundation (an affiliate of Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky) and Hyden Citizens Bank, where Frank works, the Fiber Board partnered with the nonprofit Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) in order to secure funding to purchase the devices. SOAR works with stakeholders across the region to improve education, health, and economic outcomes in Appalachia. SOAR agreed to fund the project, as long as students had a stake in it.
“Frank had students practically applying what they were learning as it relates to technology to solving a community problem,” says Jared Arnett, the executive director of SOAR. “It doesn't get any better than that.”
Frank also partnered with Leslie County Area Technology Center Principal Justin Rice, whose IT students helped build the speed test box devices for Frank’s project. Justin believes getting students more involved in technology is vital for the future in Appalachia.
“We had a kid last year, he was in our IT program. He got computer IT fundamental certification and he works at a call center in Perry County that got a contract with Intuit, which is the software for Turbo Tax,” Justin explains. “They found out that he had that certification and they moved him up. I think he makes four or five more dollars an hour now. That’s straight out of high school, and he's going to school too.”
“I think if we can open opportunities for our students to do that, then they're going to stay in our region,” he adds.
Making High Speed Internet a Reality in Leslie County
Community leaders like Frank take on the extra work of participating in the Fiber Board because they know high-speed internet is necessary in order to keep future generations invested in Leslie County.
Last year, a town named McKee in Jackson County—about 65 miles away from Leslie County—was featured in The New Yorker for having some of the fastest internet speeds in the entire country, thanks to a number of well-timed grants. Access to these high speeds has already helped many people there secure good-paying remote jobs with benefits and now more people are moving to the county than leaving it, according to The New Yorker.
By collecting enough data to receive grants, Frank and other community leaders on the Fiber Board hope to bring students and families in Leslie County the same blazing fast internet that McKee is now famous for—and the educational and economic opportunities that come with it.
“It's a very large project. But the rewards from that project, the compounded interest that we will gain for the community and this area, it's hard to put a price on it,” Frank says. “McKee has one stop light. We have two. The areas are very, very similar, and as a proof of concept, it works there. So it can work here as well.”
Most of all, Frank is proud of the students for their commitment to the speed test box project—and to their community.
“Whenever the students are aware and start trying to figure out solutions, that's when we've really made a change,” he adds. “It's when the kids actually want to make a difference.”
And the town's students are certainly invested in helping bring about change. Young adults like Micah, one of the IT students who helped build the speed test devices, continue to work toward making high-speed internet a reality in Leslie County.
“A lot of the things you do in everyday life require internet connections,” Micah says in a video produced for the Leslie County Fiber Board. “It’s not just for fun and entertainment. It’s for business and for school. And the current state of the internet we have is just not up to par with what we should be getting.”
Part 3: What's Possible for Appalachia’s Schools When Internet Isn't an Issue
Some schools in Eastern Kentucky are equipped with state of the art classroom technology and the high-speed internet necessary to run it, allowing them to focus on preparing students for a 21st-century future in the region.