Thursday, March 4, 2021

New Satellite Internet Pilot Program to Connect Students in Two N.C. Counties

The NCDIT Broadband Infrastructure Office and the Friday Institute at N.C. State University are leading a CARES Act-funded pilot to bring satellite high-speed internet service to students in Hyde and Swain counties.
Mar 4, 2021

Some students in Hyde and Swain counties will soon be able to access high-speed internet via satellite technology, thanks to a pilot program aimed at improving internet access to support remote learning.

The North Carolina Department of Information Technology (NCDIT) Broadband Infrastructure Office (BIO) and the Friday Institute at NC State University are leading the CARES Act-funded program, with additional support from the North Carolina Business Committee for Education (NCBCE), the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources’ State Library, and Hometown Strong. Besides funding, the partners are also assisting the school districts with implementing the “Satellite Internet Technologies for Student Connectivity Pilot,” which will allow students to access Space Exploration Technologies Corporation’s (SpaceX) Starlink internet service.

“High-speed internet is a critical tool that our students need to succeed in these challenging times and into the future,” Governor Roy Cooper said. “Innovative programs like this pilot with SpaceX can connect students and residents to high-quality, reliable internet service to help with remote learning, telehealth, job opportunities and more.”

Starlink provides high-speed internet service via Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite technology, which BIO has determined could be a viable option to reach residents in remote areas. Through the pilot, school districts will be able to test the feasibility of the service for K-12 students who live in areas with no broadband infrastructure or reliable cellular service.

“This pilot with SpaceX has the potential to help students on Ocracoke Island and in Swain Counties who, because of geographic barriers, have been unable to connect to high-speed internet and effectively participate in remote learning,” Jeff Sural, BIO Director, said. “We are looking forward to testing this emerging technology and evaluating its effectiveness for our residents.”

“School district superintendents in Hyde and Swain kept asking our Remote Learning Work Group for more solutions to reach their disconnected students, educators and families,” Caroline Sullivan, NCBCE Executive Director, said. “We are grateful for the generous support from our member companies that expanded solutions for remote learning and trust continued success will lead to more connectivity.”

NCBCE is a business-led, education non-profit (501-c3) that operates out of the Office of the Governor.

The Friday Institute is providing technical assistance in developing and implementing the program.

“We’re excited to begin testing rural student home internet access with the SpaceX Starlink service. Many students live far from cellular or fiber networks. By using the Starlink service these remote students will soon have equal access to the educational resources of their peers who live in more densely populated areas,” Ray Zeisz, Friday Institute Technology Infrastructure Lab Director, said. “We will be conducting performance measurements and monitoring service reliability to ensure future state funding for rural broadband expansion includes all technology options that meet the requirements, in the most cost-effective manner.”

"We have students in remote areas of the county with geographic barriers to cellular and fiber solutions, and it has been a challenge to get reliable service to these students through more traditional methods," Karen Cook, Swain County Technology Director, said. "We hope this pilot will give our students the connectivity they need to thrive in the virtual classroom." 

"There is no doubt that not only access, but reliable, usable internet access is an absolute necessity in today's student learning environment. If this innovative and cutting edge pilot enables us to provide that access, it will be a game changer for the students and families on Ocracoke Island," said Stephen Basnight, Superintendent, Hyde County Schools. “For the first time ever, the majority of our students will have a reliable broadband connection in their homes. When we are not able to be in school due to flooding or weather events, which happen a lot, teachers will be able to provide learning opportunities for our students just like they do in our school building. We are so excited to partner with SpaceX and NC State to test this new and emerging technology for the students and families at Ocracoke School. We believe in limitless possibilities and doing what is best for students,” added Basnight.

The pilot is funded by $200,000 in CARES Act Funding from NCDIT and $64,000 in CARES Act Funding from NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, on behalf of Hometown Strong. This funding will support this initiative in researching, analyzing, and providing recommendations regarding the use of satellite technologies that may help reduce the homework gap as well as improve rural healthcare and further rural economic development.

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