Following a major upgrade in its network in McDowell County, West Virginia, Shentel said it is supporting a program that is distributing laptops to local students with discounted broadband access.

Shentel announced the network upgrade in 2012. It said it spent $10 million to migrate its cable plant in McDowell County to a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) installation. The rebuild included over 10,000 homes in mountainous geography.

Reconnecting McDowell secured a grant it used to distribute laptops to all 800 middle-school students in the local school district in March.

Shentel, meanwhile, is providing an Internet package for $10 per month to 3,400 qualifying students in the county. It is also providing $10 discounts on its most advanced high-end broadband products to the same group.

Shentel's broadband upgrade added critical value to the free-laptop program because students could do online school assignments from their homes. 

"Since they have to do more of their homework and research over the Internet," said Tom Whitaker, vice president of Shentel, "broadband at home was definitely a key goal for the schools."

"The Reconnecting McDowell group is currently working on securing another grant that could provide free laptops to all of the elementary students", said Bob Brown, who heads the West Virginia American Federation of Teachers and who wrote the first grant for the middle school laptops.  The group is also planning other online literacy events for parents of the students in their on-going efforts to help McDowell County.

Since 2009, universal and affordable broadband access has been a national priority in the United States. Shentel's effort in McDowell is significant in that the county, by income, is one the poorest in the nation. The laptop program was a public-private effort, with Shentel providing the discounted high-speed connection and West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, the Appalachian Regional Commission, Connect2Compete and Reconnecting McDowell offering the public support and political backing.

Shentel, an American Cable Association member company based in Edinburg, Va. in the Shenandoah Valley, purchased the McDowell cable system at a time when the property was desperate for new capital, and the decision to invest was a gamble.

"The system was in such disrepair when we purchased it.  Shentel had to decide to shut it down or upgrade it." Whitaker said. "But we made a decision to stay there and invest for the long-term."

Shentel hopes that McDowell's state-of-the-art broadband network will give public policy leaders the flexibility they need to improve the availability of jobs and bolster the quality of education and healthcare locally.

"Broadband is one piece of the puzzle but not the only one," Whitaker said. "Now that we've made this investment, the Reconnecting McDowell team is into the next phase of this comprehensive community redevelopment."

Funding for Reconnecting McDowell's laptop program came from multiple sources. Gov. Tomblin allocated $138,594 from the state's share of Appalachian Regional Commission funds; Connect2Compete matched it with $127,914 in discounts; and McDowell County Schools added $17,680 in an in-kind contribution for processing and training.

In grant applications, Appalachian Regional Commission official cited the ability of McDowell residents to access Shentel's broadband network as justification to receive the support. Reconnecting McDowell, launched by the American Federation of Teachers in December 2011, now has about 125 partners from business, government, labor, non-profit organizations, foundations, universities and the community.

"The Reconnecting McDowell Group has been a wonderful partner helping Shentel to amplify our message, while initiating complementary broadband adoption programs that encourage broadband demand," Whitaker said.