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They were programming a fleet of miniature computers known as Raspberry Pis, each about the size of a deck of cards and housed inside old video game consoles. Their purpose? To get an accurate record of average internet speeds of Leslie County households over a hour period.

These speed test computers are still being used in an ongoing project led by Frank Baker, the information-technology IT coordinator at the local Hyden Citizens Bank and a lifelong resident of Leslie County. For many families in Leslie County, their internet is too slow to reliably support video chatting, telecommuting, HD video streaming, and other online activities that most take for granted. This is just one example of the type of homegrown solutions that rural communities like Leslie County are developing in response to the digital divide that is hindering education and economic opportunities in the region.

Most rural households are able to access the internet in some form—if not by cable, then by satellite, dial-up, or mobile. Unlike their urban and suburban peers, students in Appalachia often must go to great lengths to get their homework done and stay connected to online communities. Teachers like Lydia Weiso also have to work around unreliable internet to ensure their students are getting the education they need and deserve. Much like her students, Lydia has slow internet at home, so she has to do the bulk of her classroom prep and planning work via the internet at the school. Leslie County High School is a school, which means all students have Chromebooks they can use in class to learn.

It can become downright unstable during school-wide state testing, and during these high-stakes exams, the internet sometimes crashes. Lydia tries as much as possible not to as work that requires using the internet outside of school hours. She structures her curriculum to include time for computer asments, and encourages students to complete their homework during this time in class. These are just some of the logistics Lydia is always juggling as a teacher in order to be equitable to students without reliable internet at home.

For the asments that require extra use of the internet outside of classroom time, or for personal projects, students look to public access points for reliable Wi-Fi. Mary Lewis, the volunteer and donation coordinator and head of the financials at Big Creek Missions, says the free Wi-Fi draws many students and study groups. Public access points like The Well can be a lifeline to students without internet at home. But as the world becomes ever more digital, it is inevitable that more school asments will require extended internet use beyond what local businesses can offer.

For students, the rural broadband gap means so much more than the inconvenience of not being able to complete asments at home. It harms their self-esteem and causes them to internalize harmful stereotypes about the region in which they live.

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We don't have the good life that people might have in other places. The school also has a dual-credit program, helping students—many of whom would be the first in their family to pursue higher education—to get a head start on earning college credits. Robert pushes his students to apply to Ivy Leagues schools and to believe they have a shot of getting in—and that they belong at those schools just as much as anyone.

Robert takes pride in accomplishments like these, when his students achieve great things despite the lack of reliable internet access in the county. His bigger challenge is ensuring that high-achieving students have the opportunity to cultivate their gifts and talents in Leslie County, instead of going elsewhere. Principal, Leslie County High School. Like Robert, many in rural America dream of the opportunities high-speed internet could bring to their communities. They could enjoy the economic boost of remote work and the medical benefits of telemedicine.

Unfortunately, areas like Leslie County have been left waiting for years for the promise of high-speed internet. There are a few factors contributing to the digital divide, and they vary by region. In Eastern Kentucky, the picturesque mountain ranges pose a logistical challenge to internet service providers attempting to lay down fiber-optic cables underground or install broadband utility poles above the Appalachian peaks.

The Fiber Board works with state and federal agencies to help bring fast and reliable internet connection to homes and businesses in Leslie County. Many of the county's community leaders are key members of the Fiber Board, and Frank Baker is its vice chairman.

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It takes a connected community to get these game-changing efforts off the ground—not just in Leslie County, but across Eastern Kentucky. One ongoing project to expand internet access in Eastern Kentucky is a bipartisan state-run project called KentuckyWired. This would provide more options, faster internet, and lower prices to the residents of Eastern Kentucky.

However, the project has come under criticism for numerous delays and for exceeding its budget. And even when KentuckyWired is finally completed, it could take another 10 years or more until the "final mile" of infrastructure is fully built out, especially for families who live deeper in the mountains. This has left some in the region doubtful that KentuckyWired will ever deliver on its promise to bring high-speed internet to remote communities. In the meantime, Frank and the Fiber Board are focusing locally and betting on the speed test box with those Raspberry Pis as a way to get the grants needed to secure funding for internet expansion projects within Leslie County.

For comparison, the average internet download speed in the U. SOAR works with stakeholders across the region to improve education, health, and economic outcomes in Appalachia. SOAR agreed to fund the project, as long as students had a stake in it.

Justin believes getting students more involved in technology is vital for the future in Appalachia. I think he makes four or five more dollars an hour now. Community leaders like Frank take on the extra work of participating in the Fiber Board because they know high-speed internet is necessary in order to keep future generations invested in Leslie County.

Last year, a town named McKee in Jackson County—about 65 miles away from Leslie County—was featured in The New Yorker for having some of the fastest internet speeds in the entire country, thanks to a of well-timed grants. Access to these high speeds has already helped many people there secure good-paying remote jobs with benefits and now more people are moving to the county than leaving it, according to The New Yorker.

By collecting enough data to receive grants, Frank and other community leaders on the Fiber Board hope to bring students and families in Leslie County the same blazing fast internet that McKee is now famous for—and the educational and economic opportunities that come with it.

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We have two. The areas are very, very similar, and as a proof of concept, it works there. So it can work here as well. Most of all, Frank is proud of the students for their commitment to the speed test box project—and to their community. And the town's students are certainly invested in helping bring about change. Young adults like Micah, one of the IT students who helped build the speed test devices, continue to work toward making high-speed internet a reality in Leslie County. And the current state of the internet we have is just not up to par with what we should be getting.

We want your feedback. Share your thoughts on this story or suggest other stories for us to pursue. Living just outside of the heart of Silicon Valley in the Bay Area are more than 15, families who lack access to high-speed internet and devices.

This digital divide, which was already leaving students behind, is only widening during the coronavirus pandemic. Educators, school leaders, and community leaders alike are deeply concern over COVID's long-term impacts on the education of overhomeless students in the New York City public school system. Check your in-box for a welcome and be sure to confirm your subscription. Top Issues. Slow internet was hindering students in one Eastern Kentucky county, so the community came together to do something about it.

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January 21, Jacob Biba Photographer. Frank Baker is using Raspberri Pi devices, fitted inside old video game cases, to gather information about household internet speeds in Leslie County. Frank Baker. Lydia Weiso works hard to make sure her students are able to complete their asments at school, either in class or in the computer lab. Jacob Biba. The Broadband Gap is an Equity Issue Most rural households are able to access the internet in some form—if not by cable, then by satellite, dial-up, or mobile.

Students in Leslie County usually complete their online asments while at the high school. Staying Connected Takes a Community For the asments that require extra use of the internet outside of classroom time, or for personal projects, students look to public access points for reliable Wi-Fi. Mary Lewis, the volunteer and donation coordinator and head of the financials at Big Creek Missions, says the free Wi-Fi at The Well attracts many local students looking to do homework.

Issues like the rural broadband gap can wear on students' self-esteem and sense of identity. That's one reason the halls of Leslie County High School are full of positive s like this one. The Broadband Gap in Appalachia. We need our own doctors, we need our own nurses, we need our own teachers, if we're going to improve our way of life here and the community. The Challenges of Expanding Broadband in Eastern Kentucky Like Robert, many in rural America dream of the opportunities high-speed internet could bring to their communities.

By collecting enough data to receive grants through the Leslie County Fiber Board, the community leaders of Leslie County are hoping to bring students and families in Leslie County high-speed internet and all of the educational and economic opportunities that come with it. For many students in Leslie County, phones are a lifeline for staying connected in the digital divide. Making High Speed Internet a Reality in Leslie County Community leaders like Frank take on the extra work of participating in the Fiber Board because they know high-speed internet is necessary in order to keep future generations invested in Leslie County.

Community: Appalachia. Related Stories. Desiree Rios Photographer. Thank You For Subscribing Check your in-box for a welcome and be sure to confirm your subscription.

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