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Lack of Internet Access Hobbling West Virginians

In the town of Hinton, a 30-minute drive from Sprouting Farms, connectivity is not an issue

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Internet, West Virginians, Sprouting Farms
Hand-picked organic kale is washed and packed on site at Sprouting Farms, W.V., ready for distribution. (J. Taboh/VOA). VOA

Work starts early at Sprouting Farms in Summers County, West Virginia.

Employees in this rural region of the state handpick the organic produce, rinse, prepare and box it up on site, ready to distribute to area customers.

Connectivity is key

The farm also serves as a training center for aspiring farmers who want to learn how to grow — and market — sustainable produce.

Internet, West Virginians, Sprouting Farms
The hills and valleys of West Virginia make it difficult to run fiber optic cable. VOA

The challenge is making that process profitable, says project director Fritz Boettner.

“Our bottom line, everything that we do here, is to make farming a profitable business for every farmer, not just on this farm, but every farmer in the state,” he says. “So in order to improve the bottom line for the farmer, we have to keep what I would call the food hub costs down. So that’s the cost of aggregation, distribution, marketing, all those things.”

And that, he adds, takes broadband connectivity, which is limited or unavailable in rural areas such as this.

“Right now I would say half of our farmers maybe do not have access to solid internet or even cellphone communication to make these types of transactions happen,” he says.

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And while there is fiber-optic cable available nearby, it would cost Boettner $500 a month, plus a $3,000 installation fee, to access it — a price, he says, that’s simply too expensive for small businesses like his.

“It’s just frustrating to know that very high-speed internet exists right down the road at a public school, and it can’t find its way here,” he says. “And I’m sure in West Virginia, in these small rural towns like this, it’s like this everywhere.”

The magic of broadband

In the town of Hinton, a 30-minute drive from Sprouting Farms, connectivity is not an issue.

Internet, West Virginians, Sprouting Farms
The town of Hinton, West Virginia has a number of flourishing businesses, thanks to high-speed internet connectivity. VOA

Once a thriving railroad community, the town now depends on high-speed internet to connect with the outside world.

Ken Allman, who owns several businesses in the area, says his main online business venture,which connects hospitals and physicians around the world, would not exist without that access.

“The fact that our team of people in Hinton, West Virginia, are working with people in Mumbai, India, or in Tel Aviv, Israel, to solve problems in our field across the U.S. speaks to the magic of what broadband and mobile can do in a small community,” he says.

Fiber of the community

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The town is a perfect example of adaptation.

“Hinton wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the railroad in the 1870s,” Allman says. “The railroad was the broadband of the time. It brought the mail, it brought the people, it brought the cargo. It was the broadband of the time.”

Now broadband is the fiber-optic cable that runs through the community and makes commerce possible.

“It’s very difficult to operate a business without reliable broadband,” Allman says. “We require it to support our back office functions, as well as the services we deliver to our clients. … We also need mobile to support our people while they’re trying to do their jobs.

Internet, West Virginians, Sprouting Farms
Organic kale is hand picked, washed and packed on site at Sprouting Farms, West Virginia, for retail and wholesale. VOA

“It’s very difficult to operate a business without reliable broadband, without reliable mobile communications as well,” he says. “The two really complement each other, and you need them in order to function on a day-to-day basis.”

An essential part of modern life

Joe Brouse agrees.

As executive director of the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority, his job is to help stimulate and promote economic development in the region.

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But he says lack of connectivity is hindering that objective.

“This problem with coverage is affecting everyone,” he says. “I mean, it’s an ecosystem. You have to have businesses, they have to have employees, employees have to have places to live, and parents have to have good schools for their children. Part of being a good school in this day and age is having access to broadband.

“So businesses expect it. Households expect it. If people want to live here, they need to have access. It’s an aspect of being in the modern world.”

Hills and valleys

Internet, West Virginians, Sprouting Farms
Sandstone Falls, West Virginia. VOA

The topography of the state and low population levels are among the reasons why affordable broadband is lacking, he says.

“Population, customers, are figured into models of profitability.”

But he remains hopeful.

“Our economic development agency works with the state of West Virginia, with our congressional offices who have been leaders on this issue, as well as other public development agencies, to look at creative solutions that might involve a mixture of grant and loan programs, to entities that can own the fiber [-optic cable] and help with the delivery system,” he says.

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“It’s a different model than just having the provider come in, but it’s a model that we can own, and it’s a model that will allow us to get there quicker,” he adds.

He points to the town of Hinton as an ideal model.

“By many standards, it’s a small place, but it’s actually ahead of the game in terms of providing broadband, and that’s the story we want to tell all over the state in rural Appalachia.”

That’s encouraging news for Fritz Boettner.

“If I’m thinking about the future, and we’re going to grow these farmers, and they’re going to be doing more, we want more farmers in the network. That connectivity issue needs to be dealt with.” (VOA)

 

Next Story

People of Lao Find Social Media For News Most Trustworthy

The number of the country’s social media users is now projected to reach 2.7 million or 39 percent of the population this year, according to the report.

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social media
“The stories broadcast on TV aren’t clear, and are screened ahead of time by the authorities,” the man said, adding, “The internet is not restricted, and the authorities can’t control the information we find on it.” Pixabay

Lao residents are increasingly abandoning state-controlled news sources and turning more to the internet and social media to get news they can trust, sources in the communist Southeast Asian country say.

Facebook and the internet also provide news more quickly and feature live videos, a young woman living in Xayaburi province in the country’s north told RFA’s Lao Service on April 23.

“Lao TV just reads the news and doesn’t show the real thing,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

social media

“Increasingly aware of the restrictions imposed on the official media, Laotians are turning to the Internet and social media,” RSF said in its report. 
Pixabay

“For example, when there was a flood in Attapeu province, social media very quickly reported the number of deaths,” the young woman said. “But the Lao government was not really open about any of this,” she said.

Also speaking to RFA, a man in Savannakhet province in the south of Laos said he now reads Facebook to get news not previously screened by authorities.

“[Lao] TV provides only restricted news and information, for example news about drug trafficking and other news about the country,” the man said, also speaking on condition he not be named.

“The stories broadcast on TV aren’t clear, and are screened ahead of time by the authorities,” the man said, adding, “The internet is not restricted, and the authorities can’t control the information we find on it.”

Both sources told RFA that they frequently check their smart phones when looking for news and other updated information whenever they can get a clear signal, looking also at the social media platforms Line, WhatsApp, and WeChat.

‘Absolute control’

In an annual report released earlier this month, Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) gave Laos a ranking of 171, close to the bottom of a 180-country survey of press freedoms worldwide, saying that the country’s ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) “exercises absolute control over the media.”

“Increasingly aware of the restrictions imposed on the official media, Laotians are turning to the Internet and social media,” RSF said in its report.

“But use of online news and information platforms is held back by a 2014 decree under which Internet users who criticize the government and the Marxist-Leninist LPRP can be jailed,” the press freedoms group said.

News
“Lao TV just reads the news and doesn’t show the real thing,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Pixabay

Speaking to RFA, a Lao government official dismissed the RSF report, saying, “We have a socialist media, and we serve a socialist regime, the Party and the government.  I don’t believe in their ranking.”

“Our government doesn’t force us to do anything,” he said. “For example, if the government tells us not to publish a story, we simply don’t do it.”

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The number of people using social media in Laos is expected to surge this year, as telecom operators compete with each other to offer better services, a report released at the beginning of April by the state-controlled Lao National Internet Centre shows.

The number of the country’s social media users is now projected to reach 2.7 million or 39 percent of the population this year, according to the report. (RFA)