Piedmont looks for funding to continue wireless access
by Eddie Burkhalter
eburkhalter@annistonstar.com
Sep 15, 2012 | 5903 views |  0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In this file photo, Piedmont fourth-grader Jaxon Morris, 10, and his sister, Aly, 15, a Piedmont High freshman, make use of the school system’s city-wide wireless Internet system. (Anniston Star photo by Eddie Burkhalter)
In this file photo, Piedmont fourth-grader Jaxon Morris, 10, and his sister, Aly, 15, a Piedmont High freshman, make use of the school system’s city-wide wireless Internet system. (Anniston Star photo by Eddie Burkhalter)
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PIEDMONT — A federal grant through the Federal Communications Commission is set to expire in February, and with it could go the money needed to pay for Piedmont schools’ free home Internet access for its students.

That’s a problem for the district, school Superintendent Matt Akin said, because making sure every child has access to the Internet, regardless of how much money their parents make, is critical to ensuring each child has the same opportunities.

But the district will not be on the hook for the $1.5 million cost to install the system should the FCC decide not to continue the grant, Akin said Friday. That cost will fall to the company under contract with the district to build the network, Akin said.

Akin met with top FCC officials and representatives for the local congressional delegation last week to make a case for continuing the grant, which was only guaranteed for one year.

State Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, and Piedmont Mayor Brian Young requested the meeting so that Akin could tell officials how important the grant is to the district’s initiative to issue computers to as many students as possible.

“We’ve been in continuous contact with the FCC and Senators (Richard) Shelby and (Jeff) Sessions and Congressman Rogers about how much we need this to continue to be funded,” Akin said Friday. “But at the end of the day, there are still regulations that go along with this grant.”

During the summer, workers mounted wireless Internet routers on power poles to cover three square miles in Piedmont. Kids in grades 4-12 were given passwords to access the Internet at home for free, while students living outside the coverage area were given wireless devices to keep them connected to the Internet at home. The district is in its third year of a program that provides laptop computers to each student in grades 4-12.

The grant was awarded to 20 schools across the country as part of the FCC’s “Learning On-The-Go” wireless pilot program, aimed at increasing students’ off-campus Internet access.

Since the late 1990s, the FCC’s E-Rate program has provided help to schools and libraries in gaining access to telecommunications and the Internet. The “Learning on the Go” pilot program was designed by the FCC to determine the benefits of providing Internet access at home for students, narrowing the so-called “digital divide” between students whose families can afford to pay for Internet access and those who cannot.

The school district entered into a contract in 2011 with the Wetumpka-based technology company Information Transport Solutions to build the network. The system is now 100 percent installed, Akin said.

The $1.5 million cost to install the system in Piedmont was to be paid for over three years with the FCC grant and by the school district’s additional 20 percent match. Piedmont’s city government is helping the school system meet that match by providing $6,250 a month.

The district also pays 20 percent of the $50 monthly cost of providing Internet access to each household on the system.

The contract between the school district and ITS stated that if the FCC decided to discontinue the pilot program, the company would be responsible for the remaining cost of the systems’ installation, Akin said.

The company was willing to take that risk, Akin said, because the wireless system ultimately belongs to ITS, which will benefit from any future profits.

“Once they’ve established the system, then they can go back and sell access to businesses and regular citizens,” Akin said.

After the first three years, Akin said, the cost of operating the system would dramatically drop, as the installation would be paid for.

Those other 19 schools are facing the same dilemma, as their grants are also set to expire if the FCC does not decide to continue the program, but Akin said Piedmont’s situation is different.

None of the other grant awardees installed citywide wireless networks. Instead, many designed much smaller systems that use individual devices such as tablet computers that come with wireless Internet access, Akin said.

Those individual devices aren’t a long-term solution to providing Internet access at home, Akin said, and they do not come with the high cost of installing a city-wide wireless network.

“We have a solution that will last for a decade, and it can be expanded and eventually serve all the citizens of the city,” Akin said.

“The phrase you hear now, in all the education circles about improving public education, is ‘anytime anywhere learning’. Well, anytime anywhere learning in my opinion is a myth, unless you can provide access to all kids,” Akin said.

“What we’re doing is working all possible sources to secure funding. Will that be under the same grant? I don’t know,” Akin said. “I’m not limiting my conversations to the FCC. We know how important it is so we’re going to everybody, whether it’s foundations or other grants, so that we can figure out a way to extend it.”

“And I’m going to do everything in my power, and the school board is 100 percent behind it, to make sure that it doesn’t go away,” Akin said.

Any Piedmont student having trouble accessing the system at home should contact the Network Operations Center at 866-K12-Tech or 334-567-3105 or email at noc@its-networks.com.

Star staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3569. On Twitter @burkhalter_star.
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