Webinar: How to access free Wi-fi and low-cost internet service

How and where can member-owners access free or low-cost computers and internet services? The answers to that question were revealed during the first in a series of webinars, hosted by Roanoke Electric Cooperative in partnership with The Institute of Emerging Issues at N.C. State University.

“There is no bigger emerging issue than the one we’re facing right now,” said the Institute Director. Leslie Boney, referring to the plight of those without internet access during the ongoing pandemic. He, along with other panelists, shed light on the digital divide and offered solutions for those now coping with the challenges of working and learning remotely.

During the May 5 webinar titled,  “Accessing low-cost internet and devices,” the panelists highlighted several resources to help member-owners access free or low-cost internet services.

Amy Huffman, the Digital Inclusion and Policy manager for the Broadband Infrastructure Office, called attention to the state’s website, ncbroadband.gov. The website features a searchable map that allows users to locate the nearest low-cost or free internet service options throughout the state: https://www.ncbroadband.gov/covid19broadband/. When an address is entered on the website, the interactive tool will display where community members can connect to the internet.

The state is also in the process of procuring and installing “heavy duty” hot spots on school buses, which are now being used to deliver meals to families across the state. “Several of the counties in your region will be receiving those and those buses will be traveling around your community,” Huffman said. “You will be able to connect to the internet via those.”

Another way member-owners can connect to the internet is by using “personal hot spots.” Smart phone carriers, like ATT or Verizon, can add that feature to the device, upon request. Huffman said some carriers are currently waiving the fee for that service.

During the webinar, presenters discussed two companies that may provide the best solution for securing affordable computers or laptops. Kramden Institute and E-2-D refurbish old computers and laptops for the purpose of offering them for free or at a low cost. Participants were urged to contact the providers to see if devices were available, and if not, ask to be added to their waitlists.

  • Kramden Institute: Based in Durham, N.C., the company collects, refurbishes and awards computers to students and families without a computer in the home. Website: https://kramden.org/sales/
  • E-2-D: Based in Cornelius, NC, this nonprofit agency offers refurbished laptops

to deserving students. Distributions are temporarily on hold, but upcoming distributions will be announced soon. Website: https://www.e-2-d.org/distributions.html

One point was underscored throughout the hour-long webinar: The intrinsic value of community partnerships.

“Partnerships work, and we’re a perfect example of that,” said Dr. Eric Cunningham, superintendent of the Halifax County Public School System. He was referring to the partnership between the school system and Roanoke Electric.

In response to the state’s stay-at-home orders, Roanoke Electric has so far installed about 20 free hotspots throughout its service territory, including at some schools in Halifax.

“It’s no secret that there’s an internet desert in Halifax County,” said Cunningham, adding that when the pandemic hit only 50 percent of the county’s families had computers in the home. The situation did not bode well for students, who were required to transition to on online-learning environments.

That changed for the better when Roanoke Electric installed hotspots at some of the county’s schools, and the school system developed its “Park and Learn” program. Currently, seven of the county’s eleven schools are a part of the program, which offers students free internet access to complete assignments from the parking lots of each site.

“Partnerships work,” Cunningham said, praising the co-op’s community outreach efforts during the pandemic crisis. “Now we have devices and we have connection… the total package. That would not have happened without partnerships.”