The lack of broadband service has a crippling effect on the economy and quality of life in these counties, where income, educational attainment, and labor participation are persistently low following years of decline in the coal industry.
The COVID-19 public health crisis generated new urgency to bridge the digital divide, as rural residents without broadband availability lacked the ability to work, learn, and access health services remotely. High-speed broadband access is needed to improve education and workforce development for residents, spur growth in outdoor recreation and heritage tourism, and promote economic recovery from the impacts of coal closures and COVID-19.
“The road to revitalization is long, and connectivity can pave the way,” says Michele Kohler, a business development manager at Meta.
Improving connectivity in Logan and Mingo counties can also help prevent the digital divide from exacerbating existing rural and racial disparities in southwestern West Virginia. Rural, lower-income households are disproportionately affected by a lack of access to not only the internet but also computers, smartphones, and tablets, according to research by the ACLU-WV.
“Bringing fiber-based services to a community not only helps bridge the economic gap for education, telemedicine, and access to resources for job creation, it provides a key building block to future proofing connectivity with changes in technology,” says Kohler.
Developing the workforce
New businesses and industries often overlook Logan and Mingo counties because of their lack of connectivity and lack of a strong and reliable workforce. While state and local workforce development groups have a wealth of online resources for job seekers, unemployed residents in more than 13,000 unserved households in Logan and Mingo counties cannot access these resources from their homes. This new collaboration will enable job training organizations to increase their online training, expand their small business and social enterprise technical assistance, and update their digital infrastructure to meet the needs of a 21st-century economy.
Existing small business owners, including owners of inns, restaurants, retail, and craft businesses, currently face difficulty processing transactions or reaching wider markets online. These same challenges prevent new businesses from locating in Logan and Mingo counties, which contributes to sustained population loss from the area. The collaboration between Meta, APC, and Gigabeam will help support existing small businesses, attract new businesses, and retain and grow jobs in the distressed project area. High-speed broadband access will also help spur tourism along the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System, helping boost online marketing efforts, support heritage and outdoor recreation tourism entrepreneurship, and facilitate digital tourism innovations.
Keeping communities safe
Better internet connectivity to outdoor recreation businesses in the region will also increase safety for employees and visitors by ensuring business owners can connect with authorities and emergency medical help in the event of an incident or injury or receive timely updates on evolving disaster situations. High-speed broadband access will promote fast and reliable communications and response from local service providers. And it will enable emergency service providers throughout Mingo and Logan counties to use social media to disseminate information quickly in the event of disasters.
Enabling remote learning
Even before COVID-19, poor connectivity meant that students living in Logan and Mingo counties missed out on remote learning resources, such as free grade-level tools for students, online prep courses for college entrance exams, and online applications for colleges and vocational training programs. During the pandemic, students had to drive to school parking lots to access online resources and submit assignments. In September 2020, when schooling was fully remote in Logan County, the Logan County School District superintendent estimated that as many as 40 percent of K–12 students in the county lacked internet at home. Other students were traveling to relatives’ homes a half hour away, or going with their parents to work in order to attend school each day. In addition to providing access to 16 unserved educational facilities in the project area, this collaboration between APC, Gigabeam, and Meta will connect students attending schools in the project area to high-speed broadband access.
“Delivering rural broadband solutions is a complex problem that over time we have seen can’t be solved by one entity or solution,” says Meta’s Kohler. “The people here are the heart of West Virginia. Connectivity can help keep that heart beating for generations to come.”