Isolated N.C. County Gets Wired
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Now, we're going to hear about one effort to bridge the digital divide - in this case, the gap between rural and urban communities. These days, living in a rural community is a bigger impediment to Internet use than either race or income. That's according to a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
NPR's Alix Spiegel visited Greene County, North Carolina to find out how it managed to erase its digital divide in five years.
ALIX SPIEGEL: The computer teacher for the Greene County Senior Citizen Center wheeled in a cart of laptops shortly before three. And soon afterwards, a series of gray-haired women shuffled across the room and sat down in front of the screens. One was Violet Williams(ph), aged 72, who would come to play cards on the machine, but who was clearly finding the process frustrating.
Ms. VIOLET WILLIAMS (Resident, Greene County): I can't even move my cards. I'm trying to play solitaire, I'm not very good at it but I'm trying.
SPIEGEL: Williams couldn't seem to convince her mouse to do her bidding. You see, Williams, like most of the other people in the room, had never touched a computer until she came to class.
Ms. WILLIAMS: I didn't even know how to use the mouse three weeks ago. It would go everywhere.
SPIEGEL: But eventually, Williams says, she hopes to be able to get good enough at the computer to communicate with her family.
Ms. WILLIAMS: That would be nice because they have computers and they can talk to me on the Internet. But I don't know how to do that. I got to learn this first.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. WILLIAMS: One step at a time.
SPIEGEL: Now, five years ago, it would have been impossible for Williams to even think about communicating with her family via the Internet in Greene County. Misty Chase, who works with the county government, explains that at that time, fewer than 400 people in the whole community were online.
Ms. MISTY CHASE (Project Director, Beyond Tobacco): Probably less than 30 households and about four blocks downtown from out here were the only ones that had Internet, and that's it.
SPIEGEL: For Chase, the story of how the Internet came to Greene County, and in the process transformed, she said, everything from the number of kids who apply college to the amount of business in the county begins with tobacco. You see, about five years ago, the U.S. government decided that it would no longer subsidize tobacco crops. Chase says for Greene, which is more dependent on Tobacco production than any other county in the United States save one, this was a catastrophe.
Ms. CHASE: Seems like they thought they were losing everything they have. People were panicking. They had no other job skills except tending the land.
SPIEGEL: The people wanted the county government to bring in a factory, but Chase says county leaders didn't think they could convince a company to come.
Ms. CHASE: We really didn't have a workforce to give anybody. A lot of the families are on the farming operations, a lot of them never graduated from high school.
SPIEGEL: And so, says Chase, community leaders sat down and had, quote, "a soul search." They decided that there was only one path out of the ruin that lay before them as improbable as it might seem.
Ms. CHASE: We decided to jump over the industrial age and move straight into the technology age.
SPIEGEL: Basically, Greene County leaders decided that they would revolutionize their community by trying to get everyone online, everyone - up to and including senior citizens like Violet Williams. Now, it is difficult to explain just how improbable the solution was at the time. Even getting people access to the Internet was a problem. Though dial-up was available, it's horribly slow, and rural communities like Greene often have trouble getting broadband. In fact, when the county approached a local provider for service, Chase says the company initially declined, saying it would be too expensive to cover such an isolated place. And, she says, the people of Greene were skeptical, too.
Ms. CHASE: Oh, my gosh. How much of our tax money is going to be used to do this crazy project that you all think that you all can do?
SPIEGEL: The county leaders recognized that there was one segment of their population that would most likely embrace their improbable scheme with passion.
Ms. CHASE: We may not change those older people, but we could change our youth. And we put all the marbles that we had in a basket trying to make it work.
SPIEGEL: To begin, county leaders, the county council, and the county school board decided that they would pass out laptop computers to every child in the county between the sixth and the 12th grade. School administrators combed through their budgets line by line to produce the funds, and the county got a grant to help pay for the broadband.
Finally, in the fall of 2003, laptop computers were passed out en masse to the students of the Greene County school system.
Mr. CLARA HARRISON(ph) (Student): You know, I was pretty excited. I think I was in probably the eighth grade.
SPIEGEL: This is 17-year-old Clara Harrison. Harrison says she vividly remembers the day students got their computers. In Greene, where 70 to 75 percent of children are on free or reduced lunches, it was clearly an event.
Ms. HARRISON: Yeah. When they first got the laptops, they were just amazed. You could tell, you know? They had never really used anything like that before, never really seen anything like that before. So some people were just overwhelmed.
SPIEGEL: But, says Harrison, it didn't take long for the kids to adjust.
Ms. HARRISON: After about the first two months, you could just see - just walking down the hall, you could just see them chatting away, yeah, using iTunes to listen to music and just like they've had it forever. So…
SPIEGEL: And passing out the computers did introduce a large number of adults in the county to the Internet. Misty Chase says that as a precondition for giving the students laptops, the district required parents to take one night of computer training. They are taught how to open the computer, turn it on. Chase says that at first, the parents treated the computers like alien objects.
Ms. CHASE: Do you (unintelligible) that button? And it's like it was going to bite them.
SPIEGEL: But like their children, parents eventually became comfortable. So how did all of this changed Greene County? Misty Chase says, for one thing, businesses expanded.
Ms. CHASE: Probably close to about a 20 percent increase in business for us.
SPIEGEL: And that's impossible to attribute exclusively to passing out computers because the school district did a number of things at around the same time. There was also been a radical change in the number of students who apply to college. According to assistant superintendent Patricia McNeil(ph), five years ago, only 26 percent of the school population applied to college. But that number has grown.
Ms. PATRICIA McNEIL (Assistant Superintendent, Green County School District): The first year we increased by 54 percent. By 2006, we were 76 percent. The class of 2007 was 84 percent.
SPIEGEL: And, McNeil says, 67 percent actually went to college. Again, that was not exclusively because of the computers, but both McNeil and Misty Chase say that the increase wouldn't have been possible without them. Another change Chase credits in part to the laptops is the teen pregnancy rate. She says Greene used to have the second highest in the state, but now they're 18th.
Ms. CHASE: I don't know that a laptop computer has changed that completely, but it's helped. They've given some of these kids some positive things, made a difference on how they approach some stuff.
SPIEGEL: What is clear is that the county has succeeded in its goal. Today, Chase says, 75 to 80 percent of the people in the county use broadband connections to get on the Internet on a regular basis.
Ms. CHASE: There are very few households, very few now that don't have some use of broadband.
SPIEGEL: Greene County has gone digital at last.
Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.
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