Making a connection in Randolph County: Internet access remains major concern

ASHEBORO — The need for a stronger internet presence has reached concerning levels in Randolph County, according to a report presented to county commissioners last week.

Kenneth Sherin, director of the county’s cooperative extension, said there are too many pockets across the county that aren’t up to speed.

“Availability, that’s what we are all concerned about,” Sherin said. “Just being aware and being able to ask the questions and knowing what to look for is a big step forward for Randolph County citizens.”

Sherin, whose emphasis in his role is dealing with broadband access and education, said the shortcomings were heightened because of the coronavirus pandemic.

With that, the requirements for faster internet speeds continued to come to light in many parts of the county.

“It’s going to require more and more speed,” Sherin said. “We’re talking availability of the internet.”

Some cases of putting “good money with bad technology” have developed, Sherin said. Standards for funding given to companies providing the services aren’t accompanied by requirements for high enough internet speeds, so sometimes the needed services aren’t put in place, Sherin said.

Also, when internet companies make bids for some of the public funds available to provide expanded internet, sometimes that might come with stipulations that allow up to 10 years for all the aspects of the deal to be in place. That’s far too long when the need is current, Sherin said.

Suddenly, the need for remote learning for students and telemedicine for many residents became a staple in their lives.

“It made people hyper aware if they had internet speeds adequate enough or not,” Sherin said.

In the Randolph County School System, with more than 15,000 students, there were about 19 percent of student respondents to a survey without internet access at home. Sherin said attention needs to be placed on this digital divide.

A $10,000 grant helped with the purchase of 23 computers that were designated for certain areas in need. That was described as a temporary fix to a larger-scale shortcoming.

The Randolph office of the N.C. Cooperative Extension has a recently appointed digital ambassador. Randolph Community College graduate Laura LeGlue, a student a UNC Greensboro, fills that role.

LeGlue’s position came about through the work of the Randolph County Digital Alliance to help address the digital divide.

Part of the goal is education. Sherin said it’s important that people understand the benefits of access to digital resources.

“We want to help folks adopt the internet,” he said. “I hope we can leverage and find ways to get people connected.”

A survey on the subject is available to county residents. It’s something that can be done on the phone.

“If we want to know who across Randolph County does not have reliable internet, then they need to be completing this survey,” said county commissioner Hope Haywood.

The goal, Sherin said, is to reach areas throughout the county where the internet limitations are greatest. In Asheboro, the problems are minimal in comparison to the more rural areas.

“We have a digital divide. There are still people out there suffering from internet dungeons,” Sherin said. “It’s going to take multiple ways of providing internet. … I think Randolph County can be a better place if that can happen.”

By Bob Sutton

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