BOTETOURT COUNTY, Va. – Botetourt County’s brand-new Colonial Elementary School is filled with top-notch technology; however, just over a week ago, stepping into the school was like stepping back in time as the school was off the grid for a month.
During construction, the incumbent internet provider couldn’t provide connectivity to the school in time for the its opening on January 25.
“It’s been difficult to go that long without the internet,” said Principal Tammy Riggs.
She worked with county leaders, Blue Ridge Towers and BriscNet to come up with a fix and found a temporary solution, a portable tower.
The county bought the tower for about $125,000, shipped it from Oklahoma and installed it in the school’s parking lot.
It uses microwave technology to connect to another tower nearby and provide internet at the school.
“Broadband is a utility-grade importance. It’s as important as water, as electricity, as natural gas, as the septic system,” said Botetourt County Administrator Gary Larrowe.
Without any internet, teachers and staff would either have to work from home or drive 3.5 miles away to the old building to use the internet to print out worksheets, download lesson plans, document attendance and grades.
Khymberli Spikes, a fifth-grade teacher, said the difference is night and day.
“Some people were trying to use their personal hotspots and those were just real glitchy. You know, and all the grades and doing attendance when we got home. And just, all those little things that usually you can kind of get done when you have five or 10 minutes here at school, we had to kind of do that all off-site,” said Spikes.
Since the tower is portable, once permanent broadband is installed at the school in late May, the tower can be moved to help reach other underserved parts of the county.
“We have about 85% of the individuals being served right now, but we still have people that aren’t,” said Dr. Mac Scothorn, who chairs both the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors and the Botetourt Broadband Commission.
“I think as you look around America, there is a tremendous push for rural broadband,” said Anthony Smith, the president of Blue Ridge Towers and BriscNet’s founder.
Riggs said the experience was a lesson for teachers and staff in flexibility and creativity.
“A good teacher can teach with absolutely nothing,” said Riggs. “A good teacher can walk in with a piece of chalk or a whiteboard and do something amazing and they did.”