Benjamin Markham from Coeburn uses Starlink for access the internet for school work. Courtesy of Billy Markham.

Bridging the educational gap between urban-suburban areas like Northern Virginia and rural ones like Wise Country, in the Central Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, has long been an objective of countless leaders in the public policy space, from FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel to Sen. Mark Warner to Rep. Don Beyer to Rep. Morgan Griffith to Sen. Joe Manchin. It underlies concerns about the need to roll out more broadband, and faster, which the nation has heard about for more than a decade and that last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law should help make a reality.

However, laying cable takes time and money. In many rural areas around the country, the education gap is already being bridged through deployment of solutions that are here today—namely next-generation satellite services. Starlink, which has recently gained a lot of praise for stepping in to ensure ongoing Internet service in war-torn Ukraine, is the most well-known of these, but it is not the only one. Other names you will hear mentioned a lot if you dabble in this space are Kuiper, and OneWeb. 

I have worked with Starlink to bring next-generation satellite service to Central Appalachian school children, and am currently working on a project to ensure more access to telemedicine services through this type of satellite Internet deployment. This matters greatly in this area, which is in many represents classic Appalachia. 

According to US News and World Report, 60.8% of students in Wise County are economically disadvantaged and the county has a college readiness rate of 7.2 percent compared to a national average of 30 percent. Wise County’s teachers are qualified and work hard; but in today’s world, to get ahead educationally, you need to be online and connected to the rest of the world. Many of us saw this especially during the pandemic, when many schools moved to virtual learning, at least for a spell. 

In Wise, this is also important because of the ravages of the opioid crisis. Everyone who works in education knows that overall health impacts academic performance. Solving the opioid crisis, and other public health crises flowing from it, is essential for many reasons—but improving our kids’ learning and their educational outcomes is a big one. Education is the silver bullet; the county will not progress economically and families will not have more security and stability in the future if we cannot continually improve education.

This is one reason the FCC needs to be especially careful about decisions it may make about the 12 GHZ band. A coalition led by DISH wants to allocate spectrum so that DISH and a few others can pursue a highly speculative plan to build out 5G services. It bears noting that by DISH’s own admission, in FCCand SEC filings, their plan could or would make Starlink and similar services inoperabl e—even though in so much of the country, Starlink is already serving the customers that DISH wants to make inroads with, and serving them well. That raises a lot of questions about why the FCC should jeopardize existing high-quality, high-speed Internet services—of the next-generation variety— that are already delivering  for Wise County, and many other rural areas across the country, including in places like Sen. Sinema and Sen. Kelly’s Arizona with large Native American and Hispanic populations — to see if a rather untested, maybe-it-will-work, maybe-not plan could be capable of delivering something similar. Why fix it if it ain’t broke?

This is a question that FCC Chair Rosenworcel should especially be asking. Closing the “Digital Divide” has been a massive priority for her. She frequently talks about the “Homework Gap” and how it must be addressed. Rosenworcel cites data that “seven in 10 teachers… assign homework that requires internet access. But FCC data consistently shows that one in three households don’t have broadband at home.” In places like Wise County, we have made real progress with regard to connectivity. But it is dependent on functional next-generation satellite service; no one wants to gamble with a new system that might fail to deliver as well, or at all.

Kids in Wise County, surrounding counties, and so many other places around the country are counting on the FCC to get this right.

Jack Kennedy is an attorney in Wise working to bring broadband to unserved, underserved school children and those in need of telemedicine services in the Central Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.  He is a former Virginia state legislator, a four-time elected clerk of court for Wise County & Norton, as well as   having served on private and public space and aviation boards over the years.

Jack Kennedy

Jack Kennedy is the clerk of court for Wise County and a former member of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority.