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Mooresville offers free Internet access for lower-income residents

MOORESVILLE Torie Campbell and her 9- and 13-year-old daughters had no Internet access at home. They visited her mom’s or aunt’s house or sat outside a school to connect.

That ended on Friday when a worker with MI-Connection, Mooresville’s and Davidson’s government-run cable, phone and Internet provider, connected the family’s house on McLelland Avenue to the rest of the world without a monthly fee.

Campbell, a 38-year-old preschool teacher and single mother of four, was among the first residents to register for free Internet service through a partnership between MI-Connection and the Mooresville Graded School District.

In what may be a first in the state and nation, several hundred families will receive free Internet service during the school year. Households must have have at least one child in fourth grade or higher in the district who has applied for and is eligible for free or reduced lunch. The only cost to the family is a one-time $20 installation fee.

“There are discount programs that have been piloted within North Carolina and nationally that are similar in structure, but not free,” said Angie Bailey, director of the N.C. Broadband Division of the N.C. Department of Commerce.

Mooresville’s initiative is called Internet REACH (Reach Every Available Community Household).

“When we talk about every child, every day, this effort brings our motto to life,” Mooresville Superintendent Mark Edwards said in announcing the program this month.

The Mooresville school district has been a national model because of its digital conversion and high academic achievement rates. Every student, starting in fourth grade, gets a MacBook Air to use in class.

As a result of those efforts, Edwards was named national Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators this year. And President Barack Obama landed in Marine One at Mooresville Middle School in June to announce a plan to connect nearly every U.S. classroom to high-speed broadband and wireless Internet during the next five years.

Getting high-speed Internet to more children “is a key step to moving the needle in North Carolina towards growing a more digitally prepared workforce,” Bailey said.

With North Carolina’s move to online textbooks in 2017, “there is a lot of discussion around the state as to how to ensure that students have broadband access at home,” Bailey said. Yet “there are no simple solutions.”

The challenge is part availability – some pockets of the state have no access to broadband at all, she said – and part “adoption,” meaning a number of consumers who have broadband available aren’t subscribing due to cost, relevancy or other factors.

North Carolina has average adoption rates at home for broadband at its slowest speeds, but as speeds increase, adoption rates drop significantly, Bailey said.

“Solving the broadband adoption challenge is critical to ensuring that we have digitally literate and digitally active students,” she said.

MI-Connection CEO David Auger said REACH is “completely self-funded,” with installation costs offset by the initial $20 fee. Some customers may bundle services with the company for the first time, he said.

“Everything falls in line for us to do this,” Auger said in an interview as MI-Connection workers signed up the first REACH families at Broad Street United Methodist Church on Oct. 21.

As a municipally owned cable system, MI-Connection operates from a different business model than private cable companies, Bailey said.

“It would be unlikely for a private sector company to offer free service, although there are pilots for discount programs with private-sector companies,” she said.

In October 2012, 35 Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools were among 1,000 nationwide selected to participate in the national nonprofit Connect2Compete.

As part of the initiative, Time Warner Cable launched a pilot program offering Internet access to lower-income families with school-age children for $9.95 a month.

Time Warner Cable charges no activation or installation fee in the program, called Starter Internet. It won’t increase the price or charge equipment rental fees for the first two years.

Between October 2012 and January, nearly 200 CMS families registered for the service.

Elsewhere in the country, cable provider Comcast Corp. launched a pilot program in Chicago in September to beef up broadband Internet access and digital literacy resources in areas around five Chicago public schools in low-income neighborhoods.

Comcast partnered with United Way to set up the five local “learning zones” that feature technology training programs and events, enhanced Internet access in the schools and public Wi-Fi service at neighboring community organizations, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Locally, other efforts have sprung up to provide Internet access to students from lower-income households.

In March, the national nonprofit One Laptop per Child organization and Project LIFT delivered 2,000 laptops to seven schools in the West Charlotte corridor. The goal is for laptops to assist in getting students at Project LIFT schools 90 percent on grade level and 90 percent achieving more than one year’s academic growth in a year’s time.

Even Franny Millen, an eighth-grader at Bailey Middle School in Cornelius, is working to get broadband into more homes to bridge the “digital divide” between higher and lower-income students. Her E2D initiative has identified 472 families at five North Mecklenburg schools in whose homes she hopes to get laptops and greater bandwidth. Mooresville-based Lowe’s donated 500 computers to the cause.

In the Campbell household, connected by MI-Connection on Friday, Kyilahv, 13, and Kariv, 9, “are ecstatic,” mom Torie said.

“Now they can do their homework at home,” she said.

Marusak: 704-987-3670; Twitter: @jmarusak
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