Much like the responses to the flood of 2016 or COVID-19, Greenbrier County residents have once again taken matters into their own hands when trying to improve life for residents. This time, the fight is over internet access; the Greenbrier County Broadband Council held a rally in downtown Lewisburg during First Friday on June 4, calling on everyone to support expansion efforts.
The council was recently approved to act under the authority of the Greenbrier County Commission, where its work will go toward better positioning Greenbrier County for federal and state funding.
“What can you do? We’ve got several things we would like you to do to help us out and enhance broadband in Greenbrier County,” explained Sen. Stephen Baldwin, one of the council’s organizers. “One is to fill out the survey. … It’s going to be making the rounds for the next couple of weeks. … That’s the point of all of this, to get better maps. Right now the federal government thinks that broadband in southern West Virginia is just fine. We know that’s not true. It’s not fine. We are tremendously under-served, but we have to prove that. … If you can fill out the survey, help us get a map together, your business and your home, then it’s going to put us in a better position [for federal and state funds and grants].”
The rally featured a number of speakers explaining how the lack of available internet access has impacted life in Greenbrier County. This includes Ashley Vickers with the Chamber of Commerce, local Americorp Jack Stanton, Lewisburg Mayor Beverly White and City Administrator Misty Hill, and cheerleaders from Greenbrier West High School and Eastern Greenbrier Middle School.
“To begin, can we give a round of applause to Jim Snyder and the BroadBand?” Baldwin joked before introducing the speakers. “The Greenbrier County Broadband Council is hosting this event tonight. Dr. Vicky Cline and I have been convening that group with a lot of folks in the community who are represented this evening.”
Over the past year, Greenbrier County schools and parents have faced the challenges of remote learning, amplified by lack of internet access. Even at Greenbrier East High School, where students are equipped with a device on loan from the school, classes could not be conducted remotely due to lack of access to internet.
“As we all know, COVID has taught all of us lots of lessons,” said Superintendent of Schools Jeff Bryant. “What we learned in education are two major things. Nothing replaces a teacher in a classroom, and our students suffer for that. In the situation where you have to do remote or blended learning, we had so many students that do not have access to broadband. They were lost in so many ways. They have regressed. Our responsibility in the education community is to bring those deficits back up to where they need to be. We’re going to do that through summer programming and your support.”
Kiersten White, with Generation West Virginia and the education director for Greenbrier Valley Theater, confirmed the difficulty with teaching remotely.
“Over the past year and a half, I have been heavily involved in online education, primarily K through 12,” said White. “We have been trying to create programming in theater, but it became such a struggle to successfully engage with these students in real-time because of low internet speeds and lagging. These aren’t families that live out in a holler that we’ve come to accept we’re going to have bad internet; these are families that live within five minutes of where we currently are in Lewisburg.”
Bryant pointed to statistics provided by Dr. Vicky Cline, one of the broadband council’s organizers.
“About 30% of our students do not have reliable internet access,” Bryant said. “Half of those cannot afford it and half of those do not have it available where they live. In addition, many who say they have access are saying they use a cellular service, which is not broadband.”
Lack of connectivity also impacts local healthcare and health outcomes.
“We have electronic health records that allow us to document everything our wonderful healthcare providers are doing every day in healthcare,” explained Scot Mitchell, CEO of Robert C. Byrd Clinic. “Over the last year, we went from doing zero telehealth visits to over 6,000 in the last year. You have to have high-speed internet to do that and that’s always a struggle. We also use internet for transmitting radiology images. The high definition of those images takes a lot of bandwidth and it’s a real struggle. … Our systems are just bogged down all day long.”
Lack of access also impacts who decides to move to West Virginia, and could act as an inhibiting factor for physicians, teachers, graduates, and West Virginia youth looking to begin their careers. Lauren Miller, chief medical officer for the Robert C. Byrd Clinic and assistant professor with WVSOM, explained her “struggles” with broadband after she moved to Lewisburg from Huntington.
“About a year into living here, we decided to embark on a different adventure and decided to build a home right in city limits, just a mile from the school,” explained Miller. “That’s when my adventure with broadband started. … From the first month we broke ground, I called [Suddenlink] to see how much it would cost to bring it from one lot to mine. Not miles, not up a mountain, one lot. It is now 18 months and 26 days later and I’ve been told that on June 26, they will finally have my bid. At one point they told me $22,000. … Frontier, I had a different experience with. They don’t think I exist. I’m in a subdivision that’s been established since the early 2000s or late 90s. I tell them my road, I tell them my address, the post office promises me it is a real address, 911 address. I have scheduled four times for them to come out to the house. … I’m moving into a house in the next two weeks, hopefully, after taking almost two years to build thanks to a pandemic and yet I still have no internet.”
What can Greenbrier County do?
Funds from the CARES Act, The American Rescue Plan, and a potential infrastructure package could be utilized to massively improve connectivity in southern West Virginia if the need for it is proven. Baldwin and multiple other speakers emphasized residents should take an upcoming survey put together by the Broadband Council in order to create the internet speed and accessibility maps of the entire county.
In addition, Baldwin called for new members for the broadband council.
“You can sign up to be part of the council,” Baldwin said. “You’ve seen the various folks that came up here tonight from various parts of society. None of us are experts on broadband, we’re just community interested folks trying to make a difference. We need your assistance with that.”
Commissioner Tammy Tincher noted that although the county has some broadband expansion projects ongoing, coordinating efforts to get more funds and better utilize the resources available is key to making broadband accessible throughout the county.
At both the beginning and the end of the rally, cheerleaders helped get the crowd motivated to fight for better internet access with a cheer summarizing the entire event:
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”