(Editor’s note: The Broadband Report is a regular feature in WRAL TechWire.)

TRYON, N.C. – The Town of Forest City, Rutherford County Schools, PANGAEA Internet, and Facebook are launching a pilot program intended to deliver free Wi-Fi access to students who live in the Rutherford County School District.

The first phase of the pilot will launch immediately, testing solutions for delivering free Wi-Fi to 75-100 homes in the neighborhood surrounding the Rutherford Opportunity Center (ROC) in Forest City.

Middle and high school students in that school district already are provided with laptops, but school administrators have found that nearly half of the students (approximately 6,000 students) don’t have access to internet at home, according to Keven McCammon, site manager for Facebook’s Forest City data center, in a blog post.

“This program is still very early in its development, and we all have a lot of work to do to build out this network and ensure that it performs well for the students who need it,” wrote McCammon in the post. “But we are proud to continue our community outreach efforts and work with partners in Forest City to try to ensure that our students can enjoy all the benefits of connectivity.”

The first-phase Wi-Fi network is now live, according to officials, and can be accessed by joining the “Connect” network in the covered area. Those near the ROC can test the program now. Anyone with feedback can email PANGAEA at staff@e-polk.org.

During the first phase, the Town of Forest City is providing space and power for the Wi-Fi end points, Facebook is providing the Wi-Fi end points themselves, and PANGAEA is providing the network signal. Future phases of the pilot may focus on expanding access to more students in the school district and on improving the performance of the network.

“It’s heartwarming to see a local business, the non-profit community, the school system, and the town come together to provide such an important service to our students and help them develop the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century,” said Forest City Mayor Dennis Tarlton.

“One of the pillars of the 1:1 initiative is to ensure equal access to digital information for all students,” added Dr. Janet Mason, superintendent of Rutherford County Schools. “When you can utilize technology to enhance educational opportunities for our county’s young people, everybody wins.”

Facebook’s $450 million data center has called Forest City home for more than three years now.

It’s not clear how many students will receive free Wi-Fi from Facebook, but the company did indicate that initiative will expand if early tests prove successful.

According to Telecompetitor, Pangaea is expected to handle the Wi-Fi installations for Facebook, which will need to be supported by a broadband connection into the home. Some homes already may have that connection but others may not. Pangaea, the report continued, appears to have an advanced network in Forest City, which should facilitate the process of getting broadband to any homes that don’t currently receive the service.

Rutherford County Schools serves approximately 9,000 students through five high schools, three middle schools, and ten elementary schools. The system also has pre-school programs, a middle grade alternative program, a high school alternative program, and an early college program.

Most don’t expect Facebook to extend the Wi-Fi initiative beyond Forest City.

Facebook is the world’s largest social network, with more than 1.15 billion monthly active users.