While doing some research for my last column, which was about the types of Internet connections available around here, I ran across an interesting story.
You may have heard of the "digital divide," the disparity in availability of Internet access between rural areas and more-populated areas. It's been talked about a lot. Rural locations are at a disadvantage in many ways because they can't get fast Internet connections.
The disadvantage especially shows up in business and educational scenarios.
Several years ago, the Milford School District was involved in a project to create a replicable model for small rural school library media centers. Among the goals were increasing student achievement and closing the information access gap that rural areas have compared to their metropolitan counterparts.
Other objectives were to increase parent-school-community communication and educational opportunities for distance learning and Web-based courses.
The school successfully developed a number of related practices, including the ability of parents to receive homework, grades and attendance through e-mail and the Internet.
According to Milford Central School's grant writer and media specialist, Lorre Gregory, in the fall of 2007 they found survey results that although 83 percent of families had Internet, more than half of them had only dial-up connections available. In practical terms, this kept those families from accessing the online features that the school had rolled out. They also realized that lower income families needed affordable high-speed Internet access.
Milford Superintendent Peter Livshin said, "We are increasingly using the Internet as a powerful educational tool and to communicate with parents."
The district decided that helping Milford-area residents obtain broadband Internet access at reasonable prices would help bridge the digital divide they were experiencing and further their educational goals.
So with the help of a grant, the school began another project. Among the objectives included were extending the availability of high-speed broadband access to at least 90 percent of Milford Central School District residents, providing a sliding-scale rate and free setup to low-income families in the district, making a compelling case to residents to sign up for broadband services and supporting their residents with digital literacy education.
To make this long story shorter, the school began a collaboration with Clarity Connect, a company from Ithaca that was making inroads locally providing wireless Internet access.
Wireless Internet works by using radio connections between central broadcast locations (usually located on hilltop towers) and subscribers' homes.
Deployment of this type of system doesn't require running wires up and down every street to homes in the area, so the overall time frame of wireless deployments can be completed more quickly than wired connection projects can.
According to Clarity owner Chuck Bartosch, the company has since "lit up" its Milford tower locations, and are doing calibration testing and propagation adjustments to optimize their coverage. The company is taking sign-ups, and installations should begin soon.
"We're working hard to make sure every resident has access to affordable high speed access," Bartosch said. "That isn't just a question of availability, but also includes affordability, education and motivation. We should be covering about 95 percent of the residents of the Milford School District outside of the Arnold Lake area, and we're hoping to cover that too, but we don't yet have a tower location there ... Families who are in the free-and-reduced-lunch program will get service for $19.95 per month and have to pay no start up fees."
Milford Central School and Clarity will host seminars that are open to the public to introduce new users to applications such as e-mail, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, eBay, eGovernment services and more.
Now, to me, this whole story is a good one. It's a great example of what can happen when determined people employ vision and ingenuity.
A tip of my hat goes toward Milford, and another toward Clarity Connect.
Bruce Endries is former systems manager at The Daily Star. He can be reached by
e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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