MARIETTA — FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn heard from dozens of area residents during Tuesday’s town hall meeting in Marietta as part of the Appalachian Ohio-West Virginia Connectivity Summit.
A 14-year-old student at Federal hocking High School, Herron Linscott, brought the crowd to their feet during the town hall, receiving a standing ovation for her speech on behalf of the youth of Appalachia.
“I wouldn’t change where I live….I would enjoy doing homework at home,” said Linscott of the need for internet for students.
She went on to explain that internet is not an option at her home, as is the case with many others in the area.
While Federal Hocking School District has a population that is 70 percent at or below the poverty level, the district maintains a 95 percent graduation rate among its students.
The kids in the district make do and show resilience each day, Linscott noted.
She said that her parents, and others, drive their children in to town for internet access in order to complete their assignments and homework.
The district has Chromebooks available at school for their high school students, which may be taken home by upper classmen. Students, upon graduation, even have the option to purchase their computers.
The district provides “free breakfast and lunch, free Chromebooks, and free wi-fi” while at school, Linscott noted, but it is once the students leave the building they may not have access to the internet.
This has become a particular concern when dealing with required state testing which is now taken online. The practice tests are also online.
Linsccott and others from the district had the opportunity in March to travel to Washington D.C. While there, they met with Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) to talk about testing.
Linscott said that the Senator was shocked with the lack of connectivity and when he learned the practice test and the actual test were online he realized the problem.
“Kids have to be given a fighting chance,” said Linscott.
While Appalachia is often referred to as a statistic, Linscott said those in the area are much more than that.
“We are so much more than a statistic. What we need is the opportunity to prove it,” concluded Linscott.
Before leaving the stage, the 14-year-old was given a standing ovation by the crowd. She presented a red ribbon, which was representing Appalachian youth, to Commissioner Clyburn.
Speakers from around the region took to the microphone following Linscott to share their own connectivity stories and explain the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis.
While the stories each had their own details, the central message was that more needs to be done to bring service to the area, whether it be broadband, cell phone signal or even reliable landline phones.
Nick Tepe of the Athens County Public Libraries spoke about the importance of the libraries in connecting people to information, and the challenges that have come along with it.
Tepe explained that the library system is provided one internet line through the state, which can be a challenge. In Athens County, the library system operates branches in Athens, Albany, Nelsonville, Glouster, Coolville and Chauncey, and has put in wi-fi hot spots in the villages of New Marshfield and Amesville to help serve the areas which otherwise do not have access.
Service is essential for job seekers, homework, or those continuing their education, Tepe noted, adding that applying for jobs at places such as Wal-Mart or Lowes now take place online.
The hot spots and library wi-fi networks have become a place for individuals to come late at night to file reports for work or other needed information.
“We are doing what we can to face the challenges,” said Tepe. At one time, the libraries in Athens County were utilizing five service providers in order to equip all of the locations, with some being on DSL connections.
While some libraries have begun to offer wi-fi hot spots which can be loaned out, those require cell phone signal, which in not available in much of the area.
Tepe concluded by saying that the area needs the support to build infrastructure and to hold providers accountable. “You have an ally in the libraries,” Teppe told Clyburn.
Muskingum County resident Jay Warmke, who has a home-based business, said that he has attended meetings regarding connectivity for 13 years and in that time the area has went backwards.
He noted that they have been told that AT&T will never come to the region as it is not profitable for the company. “It is better for them to be 8th in Columbus than the provider in this area,” he stated.
Warmke told of six high school students who had gotten in trouble and were suspended from school. The six were given the opportunity to complete coursework online, but only three had internet access. The other three who could not continue coursework ended up dropping out of high school.
Lilah Gagne, a high school student in Athens County who resides in Meigs County, spoke of the difficulties of being a student with limited internet access.
Gagne stated that her school uses gmail, Google classroom and other programs through Google, and there are times that she must go to school empty handed due to her limited internet.
Meigs County resident, and Ohio University administrator/faculty member, Catherine Cutcher spoke of the struggles with connectivity in the area, while noting that she had better connection opportunities in rural Kenya 10 years ago.
Cutcher noted that in Kenya there was the option to purchase a device for the computer and then the cost of $1 to $2 per day for access which worked even in very rural areas.
“I was horrified to come back (to the U.S.) and not have the same option,” Cutcher stated.
Cutcher had a HughesNet satellite internet option installed at her residence, and pays a monthly fee for a specific amount of internet service. She estimated that overtime she has paid approximately $9,000 to HughesNet.
In her position with the university, Cutcher often needs to work from home to grade papers or access other items for her courses. “It is almost impossible to work at home,” she noted.
But her concerns stretch further than her own connectivity needs.
As the mother of two young children just entering school, Cutcher said there is the fear that they will be left behind by not having the access that other students may have.
In addition to the limited internet access, Cutcher noted that she does not have cell phone service at her residence and often has poor service with her landline phone being quiet or going out.
Commissioner Clyburn concluded the evening telling those in attendance not to settle.
“Don’t settle for anything less than you need,” she said. “Do not settle.”
Meigs County Commissioner Randy Smith, who attended the daytime portion of the event, praised the efforts of local resident Liz Shaw in putting together the event.
Sarah Hawley is the Managing Editor of The Daily Sentinel. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.