Southern Virginia's economy has been devastated by the loss of the tobacco and textile industries that sustained it through much of its history.
Now with the help of a corporate giant, local innovators are trying to remake part of Southside in the image of the digital age.
Microsoft first came to Southside Virginia when it picked a location in Mecklenberg County for a new data center in 2010. As that center has grown so has the company's interest in supporting digital infrastructure growth and education in Mecklenberg and surrounding counties. That's why the company made this one six regions nationwide to take part in TechSpark.
“It's a civic program aimed at creating job growth and economic opportunity in rural localities,” says Jeremy Satterfield, TechSpark's Virginia Manager.
The primary focus right now is technology training and addressing the region's critical lack of broadband access. “We have a TEALS program. It's housed at Bluestone High School. They will be beginning their second year this year in the TEALS program,” Satterfield added.
But before they could get to the second year of TEALS - that's Technology Education and Literacy in Schools – they had to get the first year underway. And there was a problem. Mecklenberg County didn't have anyone who could teach computer coding.
That's where Amanda Bowen fits in to the story. “They asked me if I would be interested to take this step and it was a challenge for me,” Bowen admits.
So how does an eleven-year business teacher become a coding instructor without coding experience? Microsoft knows people who can do that sort of thing and they set Bowen up with a team of volunteers in other parts of Virginia and beyond. “We would have Skype meetings with the volunteers and I would email them, chat them throughout the day as I'm working on the assignment to help prepare the students," Bowen explains. "They didn't always give me the answer but they challenged me to think and do problem solving on my own so I would understand the material better.”
Bowen doesn't consider herself an expert programmer, at least not yet, but says she's feeling much more confident than she did a year ago and her support staff is still within reach online if she needs them.
And bringing more things within reach online is the other priority in this phase of TechSpark. This part of Virginia has been notorious for its lack of good internet access but Ted Deriso with Mid-Atlantic Broadband says progress is being made. “Yes, quite a bit of progress. Specifically with Microsoft we partnered with them on their AirBand Initiative to do one of the largest TV whitespace deployments in North America,” Deriso says.
Whitespace is basically unused TV channels adapted to carry the internet using protocols developed by Microsoft. Mid-Atlantic Broadband and Microsoft partnered on a pilot program to see if it could give rural Virginia the same quality of connectivity that cable provides in more populated areas.
So did it work? Deriso says yes. “It was so successful in fact, the pilot to get the first hundred homes up and running that the chairman of the FCC has come down and wanted to look at the project.”
And that's significant because while Microsoft is offering the necessary technology for free it's the FCC that governs use of the whitespace. It can grow as an internet platform only as much as the Commission allows.
TechSpark is still in its early days. Microsoft says its ultimate goal is nothing less than a digital transformation of rural America. No doubt Southside Virginians are all for that. But the more immediate concern here is whether this will bring enough jobs for these newly skilled people.
“I certainly hope so,” Jeremy Satterfield admits. “We're working very hard with many partners across the board to make sure we can upskill these potential candidates for employment here. High school, even in middle school transitioning to high school and on into the workforce.”
At the very least he says, Southside Virginia will be back in the game, competing.