Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Charles Owens

September 11, 2013

There may be broadband in the classroom, but those stubborn cell dead zones persist

— — The public-private Reconnecting McDowell initiative continues to help youngsters across McDowell County. We learned just last week that up to 785 middle school kids across the county will be receiving laptop computers. That’s great news — particularly considering the continued infrastructure and technology challenges facing McDowell County.

If you are from McDowell County, or travel across McDowell County on a regular basis, you know what I’m talking about. There are still cell phone dead zones across the Free State of McDowell. And U.S. Route 52 — the so-called Highway That Time Forgot — is still the primary artery in and out of the county.

I recently upgraded to a new telephone, and had high hopes of improved cell phone coverage not only at home, but back at my old home in McDowell County. The good news is I can now hear everyone crystal clear at home, but a recent drive back home to Anawalt yielded the same results. The cell signal went dead a short distance past Bramwell. And there was no signal to be had in the greater Anawalt area. But interestingly enough, I was able to pick up a decent signal by taking the Virginia shortcut back home.

Instead of getting back on U.S. Route 52 in the Maybeury community, you can instead take a shortcut back to Bluefield from Anawalt by traveling across Peel Chestnut Mountain and ultimately Pocahontas. I actually had a good signal as I got closer to the Virginia state line. It was a pleasant surprise, as my old phone was unable to do this.

But sadly there are still no modern four-lane highways in McDowell County. Work continues on the Coalfields Expressway in Raleigh, and now Wyoming counties. But the wait continues for a good four-lane corridor in McDowell County. The King Coal Highway is, of course, envisioned as the future replacement corridor for Route 52. Unfortunately, it looks like it is going to take a long, long time for this particular road to ever be finished. We still have a bridge to nowhere in Bluefield. And that’s where the local Interstate 73/74/75 corridor currently ends.

Given the current political gridlock in Washington — and the toxic atmosphere among the respective political parties — I’m not expecting to see a lot of help from lawmakers any time in the near future as it relates to both the King Coal Highway and the Coalfields Expressway. I hope I’m wrong. I hope someone can find a way to jump-start these all-important future four-lane corridors. But it remains to be seen at the moment if that can happen or not.

But I am glad to see that nearly 800 middle school kids across McDowell County will be getting laptop computers. While I hope the new technology doesn’t completely replace those timeworn textbooks used by so many youngsters over the years, you still can’t deny the advantages of having such modern technology available for students in the classroom.

An Appalachian Regional Commission grant helped to finance the laptops for the school system. Other funds for the project came from a matching grant from the federal initiative, Connect2Compete, and the public-private partnership Reconnecting McDowell, along with support from the county school system itself.

The school system, with the help of its Reconnecting McDowell partners, started applying for grants last year in hopes of securing funding for student laptops, according to McDowell County School Superintendent Nelson Spencer. Now that broadband is available at the schools, and the bandwidth has increased, students in the county are now able to connect their laptops to the Internet, and take advantage of the new online tools.

Spencer says that in addition to getting laptop computers for the middle school students, the school system also received good news last week concerning the new accountability standards of the common core standards. He says McDowell County students demonstrated growth in all areas of the new state-adopted standards. That’s good news to hear. And it is further proof of the positive progress the school system has made in recent years under the now concluded state-intervention, and with the help of the public-private Reconnecting McDowell partners.

Now if we could just do something about those stubborn cell phone dead zones in certain areas across the county. And a four-lane highway that would get you in and out of Welch in a more efficient and timely manner would certainly be nice as well.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com. Follow him @BDTOwens.

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