WISE — Wise County Public Schools’ success with a satellite internet demonstration project got a legislative airing on Thursday as parents and staff showed the project’s direct impact on students.
Wise County schools Technology Director Scott Kiser joined two parents and Appalachian Council for Innovation President Donald Purdie at the division offices to discuss their experiences with the Starlink satellite broadband internet pilot program.
The school division began using Starlink in January after discussions began before the COVID-19 pandemic, Kiser told Ninth District Congressman Morgan Griffith and representatives of state Delegate Terry Kilgore and state Sens. Todd Pillion and Travis Hackworth during the presentation.
The extent of inadequate internet service in Wise County and Southwest Virginia became apparent as schools moved into full and then hybrid remote and limited in-person classes in the 2021 school year, Kiser said.
“We didn’t send devices home with students before the pandemic because of the lack of internet to use them,” Kiser told the legislative group.
Kiser said one high school student found himself last year in the position of having to drive to the Wise Fire Department station house to access internet there so he could download and return assignments.
As the county schools moved into the first full school year of the pandemic after a statewide shutdown of in-person classes in the spring of 2020, Kiser said a preliminary survey of parents indicated that 25% of students’ homes did not have adequate internet. As those households began using internet connections, the real percentage of homes with poor or no internet service climbed to 40%.
Kiser said that many student households found themselves facing service use overage charges or service limits into the first week or two of each month. While service providers including Verizon and Comcast later provided measures like internet hotspots or service vouchers, some households found themselves in areas where fiber line or usable commercial satellite broadband service were not available.
Billy Martin, an information technology specialist with Ballad Health, said he lives a few hundred yards from Alternate Route 58 near Coeburn. While Comcast provides service up to a quarter mile from his house, Martin said Comcast quoted him a cost of $23,000 to run fiber a quarter mile to his home.
The lack of service also determined how Martin’s son spent part of weekends.
“We spent Sundays in the library parking lot to catch up on homework,” said Martin. “It’s 2021. I think broadband is a necessity like water and electricity.”
Brandon Short, who lives a few hundred feet walking distance to U.S. Route 23 between Wise and Pound, got cost quotes from Comcast of $15,000 to, finally, $4,300 before company officials told him that a fiscal quarter had closed and the company could not move ahead on the line extension.
Short said his wife had tried to use her cell phone as a hot spot for their two children to do remote school assignments. Attempts to download school assignments often stopped because the phone could not handle their children’s separate connections.
“I don’t understand how in the 21st century why not everybody has broadband,” said Short.
While Kiser’s technology team was able to get Short’s family a working hotspot as a temporary measure, Martin and Short found themselves among 45 families selected for the Starlink program.
Kiser and division Superintendent Greg Mullins credited Wise County Circuit Court Clerk Jack Kennedy with advocating for Wise County with Elon Musk’s company SpaceX, which was developing a system of multiple small satellites launched into orbit from company rockets.
Kiser said the pilot program now uses more than 1,400 of the satellites to provide broadband at various sites, including the 45-household area within Wise County.
Short said his family noticed an immediate improvement in data speed when their household was connected with their Starlink antenna/receiver kit in January. While the data speed started out around 60 megabits per second, he said, the speed soon climbed over 100 mbs.
Martin showed a cell phone screenshot from Thursday morning, showing 150 mbs at his household’s receiver.
“There’s 43 more stories out there,” Kiser said. “We’ve always wanted the ability to educate our children outside the classroom. A lot of our education experiences happen when we don’t expect them.”
Kiser said Starlink is just one part of a “by any means necessary” approach to see reliable broadband for all students via satellite, land fiber and other means.
Purdie said the Appalachian Council for Innovation — formerly the Southwest Virginia Technology Council — has evolved to support technologies such as Starlink. Part of that support includes raising funds to support an expanded Starlink program across Wise, Lee, Russell, Dickenson and Buchanan counties and Norton to provide the service to another 300 households without access to broadband or reliable broadband service.
ACI’s long-term goal is to get Starlink connections to 3,000 student households.
“We’re thinking download speeds could be as high as 300 mbs by next year,” Purdie said.
“If we’re going to wait for every household to get that last 350 feet (of fiber internet line), we’re going to be waiting for a long time,” Griffith said, adding that he supported competition to improve broadband access for business, education and telemedicine use in Southwest Virginia.
“We’ve been in this tunnel for broadband and now we’re seeing light at the end of the tunnel,” Griffith said.
“It’s certainly one approach that’s going to get us closer to where we need to be,” Superintendent Mullins said.