WILLIAMSBURG -- Members of the Whitley County community met in a Zoom conference call recently with Ruthie Caldwell, a grant writer and project manager with Vision Granted, who is helping with a feasibility study looking into the community's access to high-speed internet connectivity.
Jeff Terhune with the Pine Mountain Industrial Development Authority who is the organization behind the feasibility study, said the group was able to conduct the study due to obtaining a grant through the Center for Rural Development.
Caldwell explained that statistics had been gathered for the study, but that hearing and sharing the stories of community members is what works best when applying for grant money to be used for improving broadband infrastructure development within the area.
"As a grant writer, something that I've been told is that statistics, they raise eyebrows. Stories, they raise dollars," Caldwell said.
Caldwell said the statistics gathered in the study thus far suggest there is a need for an improvement in the community's broadband infrastructure. She posed several questions to those who attended the virtual meeting. One question was in what ways, if any, has one's current internet connectivity hindered their ability to conduct business.
Erica Harris, a Williamsburg City Council member who also works with for the University of the Cumberlands, shared that because her office is located in an old renovated home located on the college's campus, she wasn't connected to Cumberlands' internet system for the first two years of working there.
Harris said the phone system the college uses is internet based and that as a result, she had many dropped calls throughout those two years.
"It was really embarrassing and time consuming for me to have to pickup my cellphone and dial, even though I was right on Main Street," she said.
Dr. Anita Bowman with Cumberlands also shared her experiences of trying to host virtual classes amidst the pandemic. While she says she doesn't have issues with her internet connectivity, many of her students do.
"People are fairly local and they will have to shut their video off so at least they'll have the audio going," Bowman said. "If you can't meet in person, having that visual on the person is very important. So when you're just down to vocal, you might as well just have a phone calls, a conference call, versus a Zoom."
Dr. Laura Dennis, the Department Chair of World Languages at Cumberlands, echoed Bowman, sharing how many of her students have to drive to certain areas and use their cellphone data just to attend virtual class.
Loren Connell, a Williamsburg City Council member, and the Director of Instruction for the Williamsburg school district said his wife, who is a teacher, has issues with her students as well.
"We don't do too much synchronous learning say like a college professor," he explained. "Asynchronous learning is, I would say, limited at best, because of the bandwidth and the inability to get on to a learning management system like a Google Classroom," Connell added. "We use a tool called Campus Learning. Blackboard would be another one that's very popularly used, but still in order to get on to that, you need to have the bandwidth at home."
Connell noted a study conducted by the school system with about 900 of its students which asked "do you have internet access at home?" However, Connell said he didn't think that was the right question to ask.
"Do you have internet that has the capacity to do the following things educationally, would be a better question to ask somewhere in there," Connell said.
Caldwell also asked how increasing the broadband infrastructure or having faster connectivity could help the community.
Dr. Bowman said it could help with expanding Telehealth services, which are critical during the pandemic. As she explained, it is vital for healthcare practitioners to visually see their patients when working with them.
"Even in non-COVID times, we're in a rural area," she said. "If somebody had to go see a specialist, the idea of some people from Whitley County going to Lexington would be right in there with the feeling of going to New York City. It's just not fathomable, or they just don't have the transportation. So healthcare could actually expand if we had better internet connection."
Sandi Curd, the Promise Zone Coordinator for the area, added on to Bowman's response by highlighting the struggles many local comprehensive care services have had connecting with their patients during the pandemic.
"They've been really challenged in the pandemic to be able to able to offer any type of Tele-mental-health services," Curd said. "Even going to the point of putting a wifi [hotspot] in cars and driving out to people's homes, attempting to be able to connect with their clients."
Curd explained that in order to keep socially distanced from their patients, those comprehensive care providers would place laptops or other devices on their client's porches and use the wifi hotspots in their cars to communicate with them.
Caldwell also asked if anybody outside of the city limits in more rural parts of the county had any experiences they would like to share.
"We have three meg download through AT&T DSL which went out probably 15 years ago," responded Fred Kingsley from Kingsley Mountain Farm. "Spectrum is at the bottom of our hill, but wants $7,000 out of my pocket to run it up to my house. So just like now, I have no video, because if I turn video on, I have no sound," he added. "As a matter of fact, we've had to turn all of our computers off, televisions, everything off just to make this call."