Wise Co. Public Schools hope to expand space-based broadband to more homes by summer

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WISE COUNTY, Va. (WJHL) – Wise County Public Schools have launched virtual learning to a level out of this world. While internet and broadband lack in most rural parts of the county, Wise County officials, alongside school district officials, have come up with a solution through a partnership with SpaceX.

In December, News Channel 11’s Kelly Grosfield spoke with Scott Kiser, the Wise County Public Schools Director of Technology, regarding the launch of a new space-based broadband program that would provide internet to 45 households, roughly amounting to 100 students served.

Last year, Kiser clarified that expanding internet accessibility was thought of prior to the pandemic.

“Long before the pandemic, we knew that this problem existed. However, the pandemic obviously brought it to the forefront. We have students who need to be connected now and can’t wait on that continued build-out,” said Kiser.

The program officially launched at the beginning of February, right on track with the district’s projected timeline. So far, it’s described by participating families as excellent. Brandon Short, a parent of two students enrolled in Wise County Public Schools, is participating in the Starlink program.

He said when his kids made the switch to virtual learning, it was a great concern, seeing as their internet was so slow. His kids had to rely on hotspots off his and his wife’s phones in order to complete their assignments. Short said it was a nightmare.

Short told News Channel 11 he’s lived in his home for over 11 years and in that time, connectivity has always been a problem.

“The kids were waiting for me to get home to use my hotspot or they were just trying to manage using slow, slow, slow service,” Short said.

However, connectivity is no longer an issue since they were connected to the Starlink program during its launch the first week of February. He said like any service, it does have a few kinks, but far less than a normal internet provider. He said it takes only seconds to reconnect and overall it has been a blessing in his household.

While 45 families are currently being served, the overall goal of this program has always had expansion in mind. Officials said not only do they hope to open the program to about 150 more Wise County Public School students, but Kiser said they’ve also been in meetings with officials from surrounding districts in hopes of expanding this program to the coal counties of Southwest Virginia who also struggle with internet and broadband connectivity such as Lee, Scott, Buchanan, Smyth and Tazewell Counties.

Currently, there are over 1,200 Starlink satellites within the Starlink constellation in Low Earth Orbit, and, if weather permits, an additional 240 Starlink satellites will be added this month with launches set to take place March 9 & 10.

The launch of these additional satellites will help strengthen existing connectivity, as well as prepare them for further expansion of the program, according to Jack Kennedy, one of the organizers of the Starlink broadband program in Wise County.

According to Kiser, Kennedy is the one who brought the idea to the school board and helped make it a reality. As a self-proclaimed “space enthusiast,” Kennedy said a program like this is exactly what the county needed. Kiser and Kennedy both agreed the program is “pretty amazing.”

“It’s pretty cool to think that you’ve leveraged this type of program as the first in the country to serve students, but it’s definitely pretty cool. I like the most that we are able to serve students who didn’t have access to this type of service,” said Kiser.

Kennedy said while Wise County Public Schools were not the first to consider the Starlink program, they were the first to launch it, making them the first school district in the United States to implement space-based broadband technology.

While expanding the program is the goal, funding is needed to do so. Initially, Kiser said the cost was split between the school district and the board of supervisors with the help of an additional grant to help cover equipment costs for the school. As far as a grand total, Kiser did not comment back in December prior to the launch but did release that no cost will fall upon these families.

According to Kennedy, money will be allocated from the state for this program.

“The general assembly approved $500,000 for the project to expand during the course of the calendar year. That new budget goes into effect July 1, but it really needs 2 to 3 million dollars to perfect it to 1,000 to 2,000 households for public students,” said Kennedy.

So far, it’s been a smooth launch. Kiser said the only obstacle in this program came during installation while serving homes in mountainous terrains with a lot of tree coverage, but overall he said he’s received positive feedback from the families involved.

As SpaceX continues to launch satellites, service to the existing homes will continue to improve, and it will also help set them up in terms of connecting more homes across Southwest Virginia.

“Students in Wise County finally have the same access to the internet as others in the district,” said Kiser.

While funding is still being discussed, Kennedy estimates summer will be a good time to expand the service to more homes. Overall, they hope to connect a total of 1,500 households this year.

“The possibilities with a global, space-based broadband are only really limited by our imagination,” said Kennedy.

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