A new initiative focused on increasing public Wi-Fi access and installing computers across rural Western North Carolina will help students, job seekers, and others. The Rural Downtown Wi-Fi & Jobs Project is a multi-agency effort that recently received a $100,000 boost from a grant awarded by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). That funding will help install wireless internet access points and provide computer kiosks at rural community centers. Increased internet access is vital to helping rural residents apply for jobs, take online courses, do homework, and generally stay connected. This project will help our region take a small step toward a real commitment to our rural communities by connecting people where they are.
In 2019, the WestNGN Community Broadband Survey revealed about 13 percent of the region’s population does not have access to broadband, and more than 50 percent said their service doesn’t meet their needs. As a result, Land of Sky Regional Council, Buncombe, and Transylvania counties have been working together to help tackle the region’s digital divide through innovative ideas. “Our study showed rural areas experienced the highest rates of broadband accessibility gaps,” says Land of Sky’s Sara Nichols. “We understand that this won’t solve the rural broadband issue, but it is one way that government and private companies can work together to help get people connected.”
“We are excited to work with some of the communities identified through the survey that will really benefit from broadband connectivity,” says Buncombe County Manager Avril Pinder. “Through some of our Board of Commissioners’ previous work with community centers, we know that broadband is imperative for completing homework, running small businesses, and acquiring online education.”
“Transylvania County Commissioners have taken the initiative to expand internet access for education and career pursuits by providing free Wi-Fi in nine nonprofit community centers through the county’s grant program,” says Transylvania County Manager Jaime Laughter. “The ARC grant opportunity will allow the county to work with existing or new providers to enhance and improve community access so that students and job seekers alike have the infrastructure they need to succeed.”
Additional details will be forthcoming, and next steps include working with providers and local community centers.