School district pushes for expansion of broadband into rural areas

School district pushes for expansion of broadband into rural areas

MISSISSIPPI COUNTY, Ark. (KAIT) - Internet access has become vital for students due to COVID-19, and now school districts like Rivercrest are looking to extend internet access out to students in more rural areas.

"You know, we were sent home really without the opportunity to plan for off-site instruction,” Rivercrest Superintendent Sally Bennett said.

School is out for the year in Arkansas, but the last few weeks were challenging for rural school districts due to the virus.

"We certainly couldn't deliver new instruction,” Bennett said. “What we could do was send out AMI packets that were printed materials."

Bennett quickly saw that her district has an internet access problem. Which meant her students couldn’t do things other school districts in Arkansas were doing.

"We recognized that digital divide was getting deeper and deeper, and we needed to take some action,” Bennett said.

That action, to bring internet access to rural communities.

“And so, I called Judge Nelson and he very graciously kind of took on the banner for that,” Bennett said.

They also sat down with other superintendents in Mississippi County and the internet providers - Ritter Communications and Mississippi County Electric.

"Just to begin a real conversation about what we can do to expand rural access to broadband in our areas," Bennett said.

The Rivercrest School District covers 371 square miles with small towns like Wilson, Keiser, and Luxora dotting the landscape. Bennett said the meeting brought forth ideas to help the connectivity problem.

“They mentioned the possibility of installing boosters like on water towers that could expand the signal farther down the road,” Bennett said.

They are also looking at reducing costs for families with students during the school year.

“But, some of that is going to take time and time may or may not be our friend,” Bennett said.

In the meantime, the district is planning on how they educate students next year, but Bennett said bringing internet access to all is essential.

“Whatever we can do to speed up the process to extend internet access in the rural community, I think it has to be a priority,” Bennett said.

On Friday, an official with Ritter Communications said the company is working on the issue on a statewide and local basis.

“We are committed to doing all we can to close the digital divide in Arkansas. We have worked closely with area school districts to proactively enroll students in our Student Connect program which provides discounted internet to students for remote learning. Additionally, we offer an educational Wi-Fi solution to school districts which enables students to access internet on campus if it is not available at their homes. We are actively reviewing all federal and state government broadband funding opportunities for expanding our reach to unserved areas," CEO Alan Morse said in a statement to Region 8 News.

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