Greenbrier County’s broadband expansion ‘has been a struggle’

By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV

February 6, 2023

“Everybody deserves the opportunity to be connected,” says Dr. Vicky Cline, Director of Technology & Testing for Greenbrier County Schools (GCS). “Through our grant, we hope to at least get families without internet access hooked up at no cost to them before the grant runs out.” 

On behalf of Greenbrier County Schools, Cline applied for and received a $2.8 million grant in August 2022 from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as part of the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF). 

Round 1, free internet access

Round one of the grant provides free internet access to the home of any student within Greenbrier County Schools as long as their address is covered by an internet service provider that is part of the ECF program. Examples of such providers include Shentel, Frontier, Optimum, and T-Mobile.

“It has been a struggle,” Cline says of this round of the program. “Some of our vendors (providers) like Shentel and T-Mobile have been able to get families connected quickly, but others have not.”  

While the grant can fund free internet service for over 2,000 families, only about 200 have received it so far. That process is underway, but it has taken more time than anticipated, she explained. 

“The way it works is that the internet provider works with the family to provide hookup, and the bill for any hookup costs and monthly fees is invoiced by the vendor directly to USAC through June 30, 2023,” says Cline. Additionally, she explains that initial Internet hookup is often the biggest expense, and the hope is that at least that portion can be paid for families before the grant funding ends.

Another challenge the program faces is a part of the funding set aside to hook up 600 of the most rural families, whose only option is HughesNet satellite internet service. Part of that request was not funded and is under appeal with the FCC. “We are still awaiting a decision on that funding request,” explains Cline. “Those initial hookup costs could be near $1,000 for these families, so we want to be able to take care of that if the funds are awarded to us through the appeal.” 

According to statewide reports, other county school systems who received ECF funding are experiencing the same issues. They wonder if the FCC will extend the ECF deadline, but so far no announcement has been made. 

A call to the FCC by The Real WV was referred to staff for comment, but a comment not been received as of publication time. 

Cline and her team want to hear from residents who believe they qualify but have yet to sign up for service. “Some people may have received our letter last fall but thought it was a scam,” says Cline. “Or maybe they just didn’t think it could help them. We want to give everyone the opportunity to be connected.” If you are interested in joining the program, please call the GCS Technology Office at 304-647-6484. 

Round 2, free tablets for grades K-4

Round two of the grant provides a tablet free of charge to all students in grades K-4. “We worked hard as a GCS technology team to get those out to students as soon as possible, before the Christmas break,” says Cline. 

Corey Howard, Technology Systems Specialist, and Emily McCourt, Technology Integration Specialist, led that portion of the grant. “We had to verify that the tablets were safe for children to use, so we carefully filtered what content they could access,” reports Howard. “Then we also verified as many applications as possible could be used offline, since not all families have internet access at home.” 

In total, approximately 1,900 tablets were delivered personally to students in K-4 in December. “We had help from teachers, administrators, and parents who helped our technology team make it happen before Christmas,” said McCourt.

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