JEFFERSON — Several local departments and companies recently set off on a mission to install WiFi access points at various sites throughout the county. The primary goal of this project is to provide network access to students who do not have internet access at home.
All students with school-issued Chrome books can access school resources at any of the implemented hotspots.
Departments and companies that were identified as critical to this project include Ashe County Schools and the Board of Education, The Emergency Management and Information Technology departments at the County of Ashe, SkyLine/SkyBest and Blue Ridge Energy.
“We are proud to be able to help Ashe County Schools and our students by connecting them to the resources they need to be successful when learning,” said Robbie Farmer, chief technology officer at SkyLine Telephone.
Director of Technology at ACS Amy Walker provided some background information about the project.
According to Walker, after schools made the shift to online learning in March the school system was aware that the continuation of remote learning in the Fall would require more access and connectivity opportunities for students.
To accomplish this, Walker said they began looking at their county bus maps and found that one location every community had in common was a fire department. She then reached out to County IT Director Cyrus Hurley and Emergency Management Coordinator Patty Gambill to express her interest in placing hotspots at all county fire departments.
According to Walker, Gambill then reached out to all local fire chiefs and Hurley began working on the design. The group later reached out to SkyLine for assistance with connectivity and Blue Ridge Energy for use of their poles and electricity to power the equipment.
“Blue Ridge Energy is proud to be part of this community effort to help students and educators during these challenging times,” said Paul Tilley, Ashe Line Technician.
Walker said both companies were very generous and supportive and the installations took about two weeks to complete, with the last of the installations on Monday, Aug. 24. The Ashe County Maintenance department along with the ACS Maintenance department were responsible for completing these installations.
“It is a great option for our students,” Walker said. “We deployed devices in grades three through 12 to our students returning to school and we’ve also deployed to all of our K-12 Ashe Online students. We hope this is a good opportunity for our students and families to go to a hotspot within their community and have connectivity to meet their instructional needs.”
Current hotspot locations include both Creston VFD stations, both New River VFD stations, Glendale Springs VFD, Pond Mountain VFD, Lansing VFD, Warrensville VFD, Fleetwood VFD, West Jefferson VFD, Ashe County Rescue Squad, NC Hwy 16 Shatley mobile home community, Doggett Road mobile home community, Friendship Church Rd. mobile home community, Buffalo Meadows development, Bark Mobile (Blevins Express) area, Radio Hill mobile home area and the Helen Blevins mobile home community.
Hurley said they have completed the first phase of this project and are planning a second phase.
Although it is uncertain how long students will need to complete assignments or attend classes virtually, Hurley said he hopes this can prove to be a long-term project.
After the completion of the first phase, Ashe County IT staff will work to make provisions to Ashe County School’s SSID on all county-owned wireless equipment.
Hurley also provided an overview of the equipment used in this project.
Ubiquiti AC Mesh Pros are used for the wireless access points as well as Ubiquiti tough cables, NEMA enclosures are used for pole installation, Optical Network Transceivers are provided by SkyLine Telephone and satellite mounts are being used at county fire departments.
The current plan for the second phase includes the addition of community hotspots at Ashe County Park, Riverview Community Center, Ashe County Public Library, Ashe County Animal Control, Family Central and Ashe County Courthouse.
Other sites may be identified and added in the future.
During the course of the next four months, ACS and the county IT staff will collect usage data for these community hotspots. The data collected will provide a vision and a path for the longevity of this project.
“This has been a community effort, and I am proud of all our partners that came together to make sure students in Ashe County have reliable internet during this pandemic,” said County Manager Adam Stumb. “A big thanks to SkyLine, our local volunteer fire departments, Blue Ridge Energy and Ashe County Schools.”
Superintendent Dr. Eisa Cox shared that she was so impressed by this community project to serve the needs of our students and families.
“We are so appreciative of these partnerships and look forward to working together as opportunities arise,” Cox said.