Thanks to a partnership with Elon Musk's Starlink project, Wise County Schools will have access to faster internet than most Virginia cities offer. Photo by Shutterstock. Students Will Have Access to Satellite-Based Internet
Thanks to a partnership with Elon Musk's Starlink project, Wise County Schools will have access to faster internet than most Virginia cities offer. Photo by Shutterstock.

A Virginia school division hosts a beta project for SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet.

WISE COUNTY – How do you hold remote classes if kids can’t access the internet? That’s what officials in the Wise County Public Schools division questioned when the pandemic halted in-person learning last year.

Prior to the COVID-19 health crisis, the division estimated that approximately 20% of the system’s 5,500 students did not have access to reliable internet.

“We had done surveys and as part of our registration process and information updates at the beginning of each year, these are questions we always ask to see who has internet service at home,” said Dr. Scott Kiser, WCPS director of technology. “Some of that is people who just don’t have high speed internet access available to their address. Some of it is just affordability and their ability to pay for that. But we always like to have that information.”

When the district switched to virtual learning in March 2020, officials realized their estimation was off – and not just by a percent or two.

“When we got into actually providing this type of instruction, that number grew to about 30% of our students,” Kiser said.

Coupled with teachers also experiencing limited internet access, a Dec. press release noted that close to 40% of school division households did not have reliable connectivity.

Addressing the Problem

The bigger issue arose when students tried completing their schoolwork on a virtual platform. Those with what they previously considered reliable internet – enough to check emails or generally search the web – quickly discovered that their service did not stand up to virtual learning requirements.

“What we found is even our folks who did have some internet access, some of it was not adequate enough for streaming classes and different things like that,” Kiser said. “We had students that were relying on mobile hotspots that had data limits. Some of the internet service providers will throttle your speed after you’ve used so much of their bandwidth and things of that nature. So even when we were connected, we were seeing some issues.”

That created a problem on top of a problem.

“It’s hard to deliver online learning when students either don’t have internet access or have limited access to it,” Kiser said.

Even though the school division equipped families with Chromebooks, those without reliable internet access had trouble logging in. For those with no internet or consistent issues, teachers provided school work on a jump drive or through paper packets.

The school division also reached out to internet service providers like Verizon and Comcast to help households during the crisis through their internet essentials programs.

“We were trying to do everything we could, but the reality is that those that have the high-speed internet access have the best experience with virtual learning,” Kiser said.

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An Opportunity for Wise County

While WCPS utilized every resource they could, their efforts still fell short in some communities.

“A large part of our county is just so mountainous and things, there’s just a lot of these places the service providers aren’t capable of delivering that service,” Kiser said. “There’s even some of these areas where the cellular service isn’t adequate enough to use a hotspot.”

The division continued searching for ways to best serve the students. They recently came across a new option when Kiser spoke with Wise County Clerk of Court Jack Kennedy, who mentioned Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink satellite internet service.

Starlink is an internet system that delivers high-speed broadband to locations where access is unreliable, expensive or completely unavailable. It’s based around satellites. Each Starlink satellite will communicate across the globe with four others, using laser technology. That translates into data being processed at nearly the speed of light, faster than any other current option.

Kiser wasted no time. He met with Kennedy, Dr. Greg Mullins, WCPS division superintendent, and Michael Hatfield, Wise County administrator. Together, they discussed Starlink as a viable option.

Kennedy also contacted Sen. Mark Warner, who assisted the group with their Starlink idea, as did the Wise County Board of Supervisors.

“The next thing I know, we were sitting around a table looking at an offer to serve 45 homes,” Kiser said. “A lot of these homes have multiple students in them.”

The equipment for the first 45 households arrived over the division’s winter break. Kiser estimated that students within those homes could have internet access as quickly as Feb. 1.

Testing, Testing

Currently in a beta phase to test the service, the division selected a sample area of homes.

“They gave us a map that showed different polygons on it and we had to choose one of those polygons as the focus area,” Kiser said. “We chose the area that was 100% within the Wise County boundaries because some overlap other counties.”

Kiser then contacted the county’s GIS office and received the addresses of households within the selected polygon. He then cross-referenced those addresses with the addresses of student households with known connectivity issues.

“If the addresses matched, then we ranked it on who didn’t have access to internet at all and came down the line,” Kiser said. “That’s how we chose. Obviously, we wanted to serve those that couldn’t get internet any other way with this first. And then we started with those that kind of maybe lived out of the way and didn’t have adequate access, but didn’t have a lot of options. We do have a few that just affordability didn’t allow them to purchase it and they’re more so here in town. Most of these are in that mountainous area.”

Wise County Plans Ahead

As the program expands, the division plans to install an additional 90 units. That won’t end the problem. There will still be students in Wise County without reliable internet access. However, it’s a step in the right direction.

“This is something that we needed sooner than later. We needed it now. Unfortunately with a lot of our service providers in our area and things, they have to balance what’s the cost to build out; how long does it take to build out the infrastructure that we needed to provide this?” Kiser said. “Like I said, we didn’t have two or three to five years to wait on folks. We were looking for a solution that would work for us now. We were very, very fortunate that SpaceX decided to let us get in on this Starlink beta.”

Kiser looked forward to the first 45 installations, as well as the future expansion potential.

“My focus will always be on the students of Wise County first and foremost. I’d like to see us get all of our students connected to the internet one way or the other,” Kiser said. “I also want to see this grow beyond the borders of Wise County, throughout the state of Virginia. Because not just here in Wise County, but all across the state, we have students that are trying to learn in a virtual environment with no access and access not available to them. And this makes access available immediately.”

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com