Bertie embraces bold adventure

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 6, 2006

WINDSOR – Imagine having the world at your fingertips.

That’s the goal of the One Economy Corporation.

A plan is currently on the table for further study in Bertie County where a Washington, D.C. based non-profit organization wants to build a technology based infrastructure that will connect low-income residents to the information and the tools which will help them improve their lives.

That two-fold plan starts in the Bertie Public School system where the goal is to provide each middle and high school student with a laptop computer. In order for that goal to realize its full potential, the second part of the plan must come together, that of offering affordable high-speed internet access to these low-income households.

On Monday morning, the Bertie Board of Commissioners joined with the county’s Board of Education to hear a proposal from Sonja Murray of One Economy. Even though the Commissioners said they needed more time to study the proposed contract between the county and One Economy, both boards appeared extremely interested in seeing this project come to life.

“This project will break new ground in Bertie County,” Rick Harrell, Chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said. “Not only does it offer educational assistance to our students, but it also opens other doors for us from an economic standpoint.”

“It’s a new day in Bertie County,” noted Board of Education Chairman Seaton Fairless. “We (school board) have voted to proceed with this project. We are sitting on go.”

Murray spent nearly 45 minutes detailing the project. She explained that if her company was chosen to provide guidance in setting-up this technological network, it would not only prove beneficial to the educational system in Bertie, but to the county as a whole.

She said once the network is operational, a personalized “homepage” would be set-up for the county through the Beehive n an 18,000-page website that provides valuable information from points throughout the nation and the world as well as access to local services within the county. To date, content on the Beehive websites have been accessed over 8.3 million times.

Murray noted the Beehive could be used by Bertie citizens to gain information on health issues, financial matters, agriculture and family life. There is a “Career Coach” link that helps individuals land the right job as well as an online marketplace where Bertie residents can buy and sell from the comfort of their homes.

“This project will prove as a huge asset to Bertie County, both from broadening the educational horizons for your young people to opening doors for economic growth,” Murray said. “It’s a new day for economic development. This project can branch off to a point where every business in Bertie County can have its own web page.”

According to Murray, the key to unlocking this technological door lies with building a wireless internet network in Bertie County.

“Your county commissioners have figured out a way to bring water to every household in the county,” Murray said. “Now they are presented with an opportunity to do the same with internet access.”

Murray said the first step in building the network is to convince an IP (Internet Provider) that it’s worthwhile to provide their services countywide.

“You have the vehicle to show that need through the power of technology these laptop computers for your students will demand,” Murray noted. “But yet this remains a tall order to fill. On one hand you weigh the impact this new technology will have in preparing your young people for a global economy. On the other is how to build a wireless internet network in an impoverished rural county. Your citizens cannot afford a $200 per month fee for wireless service. Our goal is to make that affordable, perhaps as low as $35 per month.”

Murray pointed to a similar project, orchestrated by One Economy, in Greene County. There, a wireless internet company built a network making it possible for 90 percent of the residents to receive affordable high-speed access.

Even in extremely isolated areas where providing a network would prove ineffective from a cost standpoint, Murray said wireless “hot spots” could be developed in community centers, libraries and churches.

“You first need a commitment from the commissioners, the school board and the community to make this work,” Murray stressed. “Then you have to figure out a way to make this happen for as many people as possible.”

During Monday’s meeting, Murray urged both boards to work together to find grant funds to build this network, but also pointed out the project would require local money.

Murray said she has been asked by U.S. Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) to apply for a “Community Connect” grant in the name of Bertie County through USDA Rural Development. That particular grant ranges between $300,000-$600,000. She added that another grant funding source is the Golden Leaf Foundation.

Following Murray’s presentation, Harrell said he felt both boards are willing to work together on this issue.

“We want to move forward on this, but we need some more time to study the contract between Bertie County and One Economy before we make a commitment,” Harrell said.