Billions coming to Ohio for broadband access: How will it change things?

Governments and local nonprofits have dedicated billions of dollars to bring broadband internet to millions of Americans who don’t have it. The gaps don’t just include whether or not broadband internet is available at individual addresses, but the availability of devices, affordability, and the tools and skills to not get scammed while online.

Federal funding has been designated for each state through both the Broadband Equity, Access, & Deployment (BEAD) Program in the amount of $42.45 billion, and the Digital Equity Act with $2.75 billion. Additionally, the Affordable Connectivity Program has a dedicated $14.2 billion intended to help families with their internet bill.

National attention has been placed on broadband in recent years, as both the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased digitization of healthcare, business, education and other sectors has left communities without high-speed internet lacking. Particularly affected are those live in rural areas or low-income areas where running fiber doesn’t make sense, or isn’t profitable to private companies.

Internet Connection in Rural Communities

Jim Dillon lives on a small farm in Lanier Twp, in Preble County, and uses a Verizon Air Card for internet service.

The Dillons are not alone in attempting to get high-speed internet to their houses, but it can be costly. Jim Dillon lives just over half a mile east of the main Spectrum line, he said.

“Spectrum has told me that it is not feasible to provide us their services, as we live too far from the current infrastructure,” he said.

Dillon is retired engineer and office administrator, and said the slow speed is frustrating when streaming Netflix, YouTube or other platforms.

His son, Michael, is an electrical and computer engineer, and poor connection affects his ability to work from home. Michael Dillon lives in Minster, where the connection is even worse.

“My internet is so slow that when I try to work from home, I either have to drive to somewhere with better internet to download what I need, or just plan my day to do nothing that needs it. Which is hard when you work in a tech field, not to mention the terrible reception on Zoom calls,” Michael Dillon said.

Another problem in rural areas is lack of competition between service providers. Michael Dillon currently uses Frontier. The last time he talked to customer service, he said, he informed the agent he was going to try and switch to another provider.

“They just said, ‘Go for it,’” he said. “So you know they don’t care, knowing they’re about the only choice.”

Broadband Ohio

Broadband internet has a minimum 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed, and it is faster and more reliable than dial-up internet. As part of Broadband Ohio’s program, Internet Service Providers will be required to provide minimum 100 Mbps download speed, and 20 Mbps upload speed.

Data from the Federal Communications Commission indicates there are 195,000 Ohio addresses “unserved,” meaning they couldn’t get broadband internet even if they wanted to. Another 139,000 are “underserved,” meaning they can potentially get the minimum level broadband internet, but it’s spotty, unreliable, or not up to the 100 Mbps upload standard. Upwards of 4 million Ohio addresses are served by high-speed broadband.

However, much of that data is submitted by internet service providers, and may not be accurate.

One of the goals of Broadband Ohio, the state agency spearheading the dissemination of two buckets of federal dollars, is to get better maps of who has broadband and who doesn’t, down to each Ohioan’s individual address.

“While no data resource is perfect, what will be necessary to avoid (especially when considering equity) is the possibility of leaving any underserved households and marginalized neighborhoods behind in this effort,” said Fabrice Juin with the Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission.

With multiple local internet connectivity programs bubbling up in Montgomery County and Greene County, southwest Ohio’s maps are becoming increasingly outdated, which poses the risk of leaving some areas without broadband.

“Our region should not be in jeopardy of missing out on key state and federal funding,” Juin said.

The United Way of Greater Cincinnati is the lead for Southwest Ohio’s Regional Digital Inclusion Alliance in partnership with Broadband Ohio, to figure out exactly what needs there are in the region and what barriers there are to having broadband internet.

“What we’re doing is less about creating maps, and more about, how do we identify what the needs are in southwest Ohio?” said Kristina Scott of United Way of Greater Cincinnati. “This is a process that’s going to be informed by residents’ participation, by community organization participation. How can we leverage billions of dollars in federal investment to give every southwest Ohio family a chance to thrive with their digital life?”

Their resources include the Ohio Broadband Coverage Map and Ohio’s Broadband Availability Gaps. These maps can be challenged by individual users, who can look up their address and see if their internet availability is properly represented. Both Broadband Ohio and other local groups will also be holding community meetings into the summer to talk with people about how they can better get online.

Affordable Connectivity Program

Once the broadband infrastructure is available, individuals have to be able to connect to the network. The government has set aside $14 billion for the Affordable Connectivity Program, where qualifying families can get $30 off their internet bill through their service provider.

However, very few people in southwest Ohio are taking advantage of it.

“The problem with federal programs is that nobody knows about them,” said Darrell Mitchell, of Connectivity Champions Cincinnati, a group helping people sign up for the program. “That’s what our goal is, to let people know what’s happening and how do you get signed up.”

A person is eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Program if their household income is at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, or if a household member receives government benefits, including free or reduced lunch, housing assistance, WIC benefits, SNAP benefits, veterans’ pensions, and others. Pell Grant recipients are also eligible for the program.

However, the program is more of a “band-aid” than a sustainable solution, organizations say, and doesn’t address the root cause of broadband inequalities. That $14.2 billion is projected to be used up by the end of next year, give or take the number of people that sign up, without the federal government renewing its funding.

“It affects both sides of the aisle,” Mitchell said. “I think it’ll be beneficial for both sides to bring this one back in, but of course it’ll be in competition with everything else.”

“The ‘next step that has been considered in conversations with stakeholders is considering broadband and digital access as a true public good; one that is openly provided and made available to all community members in a non-exclusive way,” Juin said.

Local efforts to increase broadband

The Greene County Commissioners last year dedicated nearly $10 million of their American Rescue Plan Act funds to bring broadband access to the county .

State-level efforts are “technology neutral,” Broadband Ohio previously told the Dayton Daily News, as long as the tech gets to 100 Mbps upload speed and 10 Mbps download speed. Greene County, by contrast, awarded its contract to Altafiber, formerly Cincinnati Bell, to run fiber optic cables through much of eastern and rural Greene County. Fiber cables typically are more reliable, and offer higher data speeds than other methods.

In the past year Altafiber has submitted more than 10,000 pole attachment requests, bought real estate for its Xenia Central Office, designed nearly a third of the planned Greene County “doors,” or address connections, and built about 3,000 connections in the Beavercreek and Fairborn areas, the company said Thursday. Construction for most other Greene County residents is expected sometime in 2024, the company said.

Montgomery County is working with Ice Miller, LLP, to gather its own data from local residents, particularly in areas like Brookville and Jefferson Twp., to identify broadband gaps.

“We know especially in the rural parts of Montgomery County, that infrastructure is a big need,” said Haley Carretta, Director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives. “How do we smartly make sure that we’re connecting residents in the best way that we can?”

Montgomery County is also working to identify local organizations that have done their own efforts to bring broadband internet to public spaces, and wants to hear from local residents who don’t have internet in their homes.

“We also heard about lack of devices. So it’s that accessibility piece,” Carretta said. “Right now it’s just making sure you are connecting, calling providers to see what’s available.”

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