Education leaders, business reps, lawmakers take first step toward countywide internet access

Spreading internet access across county topic of meeting

Jessica Horne Staff writer

			
				                                Leaders of Robeson County’s public schools, state legislators and representatives from communications services companies meet Tuesday afternoon at the Public Schools of Robeson County’s headquarters on Hargrave Street in Lumberton to discuss ways to offer broadband services across all areas in the county.
                                 Courtesy photo | Public Schools of Robeson County

Leaders of Robeson County’s public schools, state legislators and representatives from communications services companies meet Tuesday afternoon at the Public Schools of Robeson County’s headquarters on Hargrave Street in Lumberton to discuss ways to offer broadband services across all areas in the county.

Courtesy photo | Public Schools of Robeson County

<p>Burnette</p>

Burnette

<p>Lowry</p>

Lowry

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    LUMBERTON — Public School leaders, state legislators and representatives from communications services companies gathered Tuesday to take the “first step” toward offering broadband services across Robeson County.

    Some members joined in person and others by video during the meeting at the Public Schools of Robeson County’s district headquarters building on Hargrave Street.

    “We’re trying to look at what can be done with broadband services short-term to right now and long-term in the future,” said Craig Lowry, PSRC Board of Education chairman.

    Discussions of running underground cables through communities was on the table, but that will take time, Lowry said.

    “It’s just a long-phased plan that needs to be addressed,” said Mike Smith, Board of Education member.

    That plan requires action, said Kris Ward, director of Business Development at Atlantic Telephone Membership Corporation.

    “ATMC and LREMC are looking at opportunities to assist each other in getting fiber optic resources to the neediest rural areas in the county. Today’s meeting was a good first step in what will be a long journey,” Ward said. “ATMC recognizes we have good representatives in Raleigh, like Sen. (Danny) Britt, Reps. (Brenden) Jones and (Charles) Graham, who all know that the state’s most vulnerable students in rural areas simply can’t be adequately educated without affordable broadband service in their homes.”

    Rep. Graham said the issue concerns “quality of life” and “equal access of public education.”

    “From a legislative perspective, we’re working on that,” Graham said.

    Legislation that offers businesses grant incentives to provide assistance to the school system has been approved, he said. The lawmaker also said the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology, or GREAT, grants announced Aug. 19 by Gov. Roy Cooper gave a big boost to the effort to give residents in every corner of Robeson County internet access. ATMC has been awarded $2.5 million in GREAT funding to expand internet service to rural communities in Columbus and Robeson counties.

    “We do know that this is not a one-year process, it’s a multi-year process to get grants awarded,” Graham said.

    And the process of spreading internet access across Robeson County is costly, said Gordon Burnette, PSRC spokesman. Some estimates place the cost of providing broadband connectivity in some rural areas of the county at more than $50 million.

    The school system plans to deploy 39 school buses equipped with mobile hot spots in communities in order to give children access to the internet. The school system is waiting on some hot spots and other technology to be delivered before buses begin the park-and-learn program. Locations where parents can now park and access Wi-Fi can be found on the PSRC website.

    “We will continue to provide our students with technology devices and internet access in every school parking lot, our park-and-learn locations, and with the gracious help of our community partners,” Burnette said.

    The North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office is conducting surveys to gather data on internet connectivity across N.C. The data will help identify areas in need of connectivity.

    The survey can be taken by going online to www.ncbroadband.gov/broadband-nc/north-carolina-broadband-survey.

    “COVID has recently brought the lack of broadband in rural areas to the forefront, but this has been an issue for more than two decades,” said Ward, of ATMC. “It will take public and private partnerships to make sure our kids don’t fall further behind.”

    Reach Jessica Horne at 910-416-5165 or via email at [email protected]