By MATT COMBS
BECKLELY, W.Va. — Two miles up Beards Fork Road in Fayette County, sandwiched between two steep mountainsides, sits the Southern Appalachian Labor School’s (SALS) Beards Fork community center.
The center hosts both after-school and summer programs for children of all ages where the students are well fed, both in their bellies and in their minds.
Kathryn South, a SALS staff member, is proud of the center in the “little, narrow hollow that people kind of just forgot about.”
SALS welcomes volunteers from throughout the country and the world, and South smiled as she pointed out the faraway locations from where volunteers have come — Beijing, Nepal, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Mumbai.
But South said there was a universal complaint by both the volunteers and the staff — the speed of the internet.
According to the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council’s website, the Federal Communications Commission labels broadband as the internet with download speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of 3 Mbps.
That speed of internet would allow for access to telemedicine, remote education and high definition television, among countless other applications.
When a SALS Beards Fork employee measured the speed of the center’s internet using a new test provided by the state, speeds barely measured 3 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload.
“It’s very slow,” South said. “And in the afternoon, when people come home, or kids come home from school, it’s even less accessible because other people are on it.”
While high-speed WiFi may seem a luxury, South contends it is a necessity for SALS’ mission at Beards Fork.
The nonprofit runs various STEM projects for the 15 to 20 children who come to the program every day.
“They need the internet so that they can research things and keep up what they’re doing in their schoolwork so they won’t fall behind,” South said.
The situation is not much better farther down the hollow and up W.Va. 61 either.
SALS has an office in Kincaid, where the organization handles much of its paperwork.
“As an entity that relies 100 percent on state and federal grants that we have to write and submit, keep track of, do reports on — and the push is for everything to be online, it’s extremely frustrating to not be able to have access,” said SALS director John David.
The speed test at SALS’s Kincaid location registered speeds of 3.1 Mbps for download and 0.8 Mbps for upload.
David explained that everything SALS does must be reported in some fashion and that the report is done entirely online.
“I’ve just been upstairs on the computer, where it said ‘connection interrupted’ six times already this morning,” David added.
The director gave multiple examples of how the speed of the internet has caused SALS and him personally both time and anguish.
According to David, it recently took him three attempts to send one 80-page document online and when he had to send the nonprofit’s accounting manual during a grant application process, he had to break the document into four parts to send.
“It’s all online,” David said. “So it’s difficult for a nonprofit entity to comply.”
Ruth Lanham, another SALS staff member, agreed,
It’s slow. It’s very slow,” Lanham said. “Sometimes it takes a while to get stuff done because it’s so slow. It’ll kick you off and you’ll have to get back on. Yeah, it’s slow.”
Nor do Internet speeds fare much better in more populated areas of Fayette County.
When the Oak Hill Library’s computers wouldn’t allow for the state’s speed test to be run because of security software, the director of the Fayette County Public Libraries, Judy Gunsaulis, ran a comparable speed test.
The director’s computer was able to push out 4.83 Mbps download and 1.9 Mbps upload, still less than one-fifth of download speed needed to be considered broadband.
“They have tried to keep it upgraded,” Gunsaulis said. “We have a really good server that was through a grant that the state did, but it’s just everything takes more and more bandwidth.”
Gunsaulis manages seven libraries spread across Fayette County, in both rural and more populated areas, and she said that the internet problems are generally spread across all locations.
“It’s different times of the day, but all over,” Gunsaulis said. “It slows down and speeds up.”
The library head said that much of what patrons use library computers for is work- or travel-related.
Gunsaulis said tourists will visit the library to check email and other personal business and locals will come to apply for jobs.
With aging buildings and other financial worries to look after, the library director said the internet is just part of what she has to worry about, albeit a growing part.
“More and more of what they do is “online,” she said. “But every new program seems to take more and more bandwidth so you have to keep up. But it comes with a price.”
That price is no stranger to the SALS staff in Beards Fork either.
Standing in the entrance way of the SALS community center, which was once an elementary school lost to population loss and budget cuts, Kathryn South shrugged and smiled.
“We’re West Virginia,” South said. “We’re just like 10 years behind everybody else.”
The West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council’s speed test is available at https://broadband.wv.gov/.
Email: [email protected]; follow on Twitter @mattcombsRH
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