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Poor Connection

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Broadband access is an everyday necessity for many Ohioans, but for some residents in southeastern Ohio, access to high-speed internet connection is a luxury. 

A report by the Athens County Economic Development Council, Ohio University and the Buckeye Hills Regional Council — a group of local governments dedicated to improving the lives of southeastern Ohio residents — found that 80-90% of households in the “rural expanse” have no access to broadband services. The study defines “rural expanse” as areas with 20 or fewer households per square mile. 

The report recommends that the state attract funding from the federal government and establish a $500 million projects fund to digitally connect underserved rural households and businesses. 

“Lacking reliable internet access takes a toll on small businesses, on education, even on health outcomes,” Rep. Steve Stivers said in a statement provided to The New Political. Stivers ensured that internet connection in Ohio’s 15th Congressional District is a high priority for him in Congress. 

Local libraries and businesses currently carry the burden of providing cyberspace sanctuaries for those left in the dark. 

“Providing access to the internet is probably one of the most important things libraries do today,” said Nick Tepe, director of Athens County Public Libraries. 

Recently, the Athens County library system averaged approximately 20,000-hour-long wireless connections a month, according to Tepe. In 2018, the libraries had a total of 53,565 computer sessions. 

Many people use the library’s internet access in the parking lot outside of library hours, usually before or after they go to work. Some use it to update software on their devices, he said. 

“It looks to be like contractors checking their email or people checking emails before they have to go to work,” Tepe said. “I’ve seen people making FaceTime or Skype calls using our WiFi from our parking lot.” 

Tepe said the library is happy to provide high-speed Wi-Fi access to residents, free of charge and with no login required: “This is a service that is paid for by your tax dollars. It is free and open to the public.” 

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman introduced the RURAL Act in April of 2019 “to preserve jobs and encourage infrastructure development by expanding tax-exempt cooperative organizations’ access to government grants and assistance,” according to a statement provided by the senator’s office. His office said that the RURAL Act includes measures for broadband grants in rural areas, such as southeastern Ohio. 

Design by Maggie Prosser.

“Small businesses that are eager to be able to expand in some of our rural areas but are told it’s going to be a long time and a big expense to get the ability to have a fast internet … tend to go to the urban areas. Therefore, Columbus is expanding substantially but not southeast Ohio,” Portman said at a senatorial Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing in October. 

At the hearing, Portman also voiced concern about some Federal Communication Commission maps in which rural areas are labeled as having broadband access when in reality they do not. 

In September 2019, Sen. Sherrod Brown cosponsored the bipartisan Broadband DATA Act, which aims to ensure reliable maps are created that show which areas still need broadband access. 

Brown was also a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which expanded funding for rural broadband in 2018 from $25 million to $350 million a year, according to his office. The senator is also a strong supporter of the Appalachian Regional Commission, an economic development agency partnered with local, state and federal governments. The group’s goal is to expand broadband access and support local economic growth in rural areas. 

“I’ll continue working with my colleagues across the aisle and businesses to secure investments for broadband projects that will improve the way Ohioans live, work, study and enjoy their free time, while attracting businesses and jobs,” Brown said in a comment provided to TNP. 

At the state level, InnovateOhio — directed by Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted — is working to improve broadband access and “use technology in government to improve service, reduce cost and spur a culture of innovation in Ohio.” 

In September, the organization, along with the Ohio Department of Transportation, issued a statewide broadband access report, which suggested that interstate highways could be leveraged to expand broadband. The report continued, adding: “There is no silver bullet, and a variety of strategies should be employed to make sure every Ohioan has access to high-speed internet.”

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