Hancock County hopes grant will allow community to cross ‘digital divide’

Counties in Crisis

SNEEDVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Hancock County High School senior Laura Linden is one of 15 students taking Danita Dodson’s English II composition class.

It’s a unique, dual-enrollment program with Walters State Community College in Morristown. The students get high school credit and college credit at the same time. All made possible when the school’s internet service was upgraded three years ago.

“Oh, it’s made a big difference,” HCHS student Preston Hatfield said. “It’s helped us out academically and helped us access the internet.”

Dodson, a teacher at Hancock County High School for 30 years, admits that before wi-fi came to the school system, it was tough for students to keep up with their better connected peers — but, not anymore.  

“I’ve seen growth in the last couple of years,” he said. “Many already have acceptance letters from like the University of Tennessee.”

Tucked in a valley and surrounded by mountains, Hancock County is one of the most economically distressed counties in the state. Sneedville, the county’s seat, is a community of just more than 6,600 people. One-thousand of them are children enrolled in the county’s two schools.
     
A grant earlier this year enabled the public library to gain high-speed internet access, allowing students to come after school to finish their homework if they have no connection at home.

“We have increased our speed to 100 (megabytes per second),” Hancock County Public Library Director Lois Rosenbalm said. “We did have around 18 or 19 MB with U-verse. That was very very slow.”

The broadband service has also helped businesses.

Allied Dispatch Solutions announced 110 new jobs and built a new facility along a business corridor six months ago in Sneedville. Two more manufacturing businesses are growing with the recent expansion of broadband service.

While Hensley is making progress at school, the digital divide in her community keeps her from completing schoolwork when she’s at home.

“I live about 30 or 45 minutes away, back in the woods, basically,” Hensley said. “Not many many internet services reach us.”

For Hensley and others in Hancock County a new $3.2 million grant from the Federal Communications Commission may be able to expand broadband services to them. County Mayor Thomas Harrison said the grant will allow broadband internet access to expand to 1,100 homes.

That could mean some students who live outside of Sneedville will be able in a few years to bridge the digital divide.

Harrison said having the same access to digital opportunities that urban counties do is critical to the community.

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