By Rachel Totten
Charter Communications Inc. joined local leaders Wednesday at the Boys and Girls Club of Blount County’s Fort Craig facility to discuss ways to bridge the digital divide in Blount County.
At the roundtable discussion, Leah Brown, Charter’s director of government and community, said that, because only about 71 percent of American households have currently adopted broadband service, “the digital divide is very much still a reality today.”
“We’re working to connect customers to broadband in an increasingly digital economy,” Brown explained. “Because networking and connecting are vital tools of everyday life.”
As school systems become more internet-focused, Blount County Schools’ Technology Supervisor John Herron agreed that the digital divide is also resulting in education gaps.
“As we provide more and more access to online curriculums and giving students their own devices, it has made it critical for all students to have that access at home,” Herron said. “There’s a big need in the county for a low-cost broadband program.”
In an attempt to help close the gap, Charter has launched Spectrum Internet Assist for $14.99 to eligible families of students who participate in the National School Lunch Program and seniors 65 and older who receive Supplemental Security Income benefits.
‘Unbelievable’ for Blount County
Because about 70 percent of students at the Boys and Girls Club participate in the reduced school lunch program, Jeff Money, Boys and Girls Clubs of Blount County’s executive director, said access to an affordable internet service will be “unbelievable” for them and their families.
“We work with three school systems, so it will be easier to get the word out about closures in the winter,” Money said. “For parents to be able to see that information quickly will be very valuable.”
Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell praised the broadband communications company for their efforts to offer the service that’s “much needed in Blount County and across the state of Tennessee.”
“We have some very rural areas in this county, and this right here is the stimulus that we need right now,” Mitchell said. “There’s so many things people take for granted every day that’s provided on the internet, and to have all of these at your fingertips, I think is just amazing.”
Mitchell said that widespread access can even affect the state of Blount County’s business.
“When talking to some companies wanting to move here, the technology we have is very important in their decision of if they want to be here or not,” he explained. “They want to see what citizens of the community have been provided with.”
Joani Shaver, director of Blount County’s Office of Aging, said that broadband service has the ability to effectively connect seniors with family members and other essential resources, especially in relation to safety.
“I think it will take a lot of work to make an impact, but at least it’s a starting point,” said Shaver, adding that a big challenge will be making the service more valuable to those who may have never been exposed to it. “Rural citizens don’t value the internet because they’re never been exposed to it and don’t know what to use it for.”
We have to make it valuable, she said, and that takes a community effort.
To get the word out about Charter’s new program, Mitchell suggested starting with the library and anywhere else that people frequently visit.
“The people coming there to use computers are probably the ones who need it most,” he said. “And putting anything online is like giving someone a gas card who doesn’t own a car. We’re going to have to reach out and touch them.”
Like Mitchell, Shaver said the community will have to look for other avenues of creating awareness outside of online platforms, such as print advertisements and getting churches and schools involved with demonstrations that show all the internet has to offer.
“There has to be some outreach into the community, and I really believe that some of the outreach has got to be in print,” she said. “You can’t reach the most vulnerable (through the internet) because they don’t have broadband access or the device.”
Prospective enrollees can learn more about Charter’s Spectrum Internet Assist program at www.SpectrumInternetAssist.com or by calling 1-844-525-1574.