Montgomery County plans to bridge broadband gaps

Montgomery County leaders plan to form a steering committee and engage a consultant to figure out how to expand fiber networks in the northern part of the county, and push to increase high-speed internet access and affordability to rural and lower-income households countywide.

“It’s become critical and essential to our lives and so many people don’t have that access. Understanding the gaps is super important, because if we’re going to make sure everyone has equitable access to the speeds they need, we need to understand where we are so we can move forward,” said Kelly Geers, director of the county’s Office of Strategic Initiatives.

The pandemic exposed with greater clarity where people had more difficulty accessing the internet, whether to attend school online, seek telehealth services or work from home, Geers told county commissioners Tuesday.

The county plans to examine multiple factors contributing to a digital divide, including broadband infrastructure, the speed and affordability of service and device accessibility, Geers said.

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While the county’s average rate of households with internet service — 83.2% — is right about at the 82% statewide and 82.7% national average, data show gaps to affordability remain in Dayton, Moraine, Riverside, Trotwood and West Carrollton, according to U.S. Census statistics.

The average cost of residential internet in Montgomery County of $65 per month is slightly higher than the national average of $60 per month, but the median average income is below the national average for many county residents, Geers said.

“If you have less income, sometimes internet is out of your reach,” she said. “If it’s between food and having internet, you’re going to pick food. If it’s between paying rent and having the internet, you’re going to pay your rent.”

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Broadband affordability in Montgomery County

The average cost of residential internet in Montgomery County of $65 per month is slightly higher than the national average of $60 per month even though the median average income is below the national average.
CityBroadband subscriptionMedian household income
Huber Heights88.9%$62,461
West Carrollton83.9%$44,413
Montgomery County Avg.83.2%$51,542
United States Avg.82.7%$62,843
State of Ohio Avg.82.0%$56,602
Source: Montgomery County, U.S. Census QuickFacts, 2015-2019

The 89.6% of internet-connected device ownership (such as computers and smart phones) is also not far off the national average of 90.3%, but the rate is below the national average in seven Montgomery County communities, according to Census statistics.

“Just because some of us have access, others don’t. That’s not equity. So, you know, we want to make sure all citizens can equally participate,” Geers said.

Service maps show the availability of 100-Mbps broadband speed is available to 98.7% of the county, but is lacking in Clay Twp., outlying areas of Trotwood, and areas surrounding Farmersville and Jackson Twp. Additional gaps are prevalent in Jefferson Twp. and German Twp., according to Connected Nation data.

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Economic growth hinges on a company’s ability to access high-speed broadband, including for those drawn to locate near the Dayton International Airport, Montgomery County Commissioner Debbie Lieberman said

“High-speed fiber is just like infrastructure for roads and water and sewer,” she said. “In economic development now, it’s infrastructure and everybody’s going to be looking for that. It’s not something that’s nice to have like it was 30 years ago.”

The issue cuts across urban and rural communities alike, said Lieberman, who recently discussed internet access with those attending a Farm Bureau breakfast in Brookville.

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“They said it’s horrible,” she said.

A primary focus will be getting broadband to rural areas on the western and northern edges of the county where gaps exist around Brookville, Englewood, Jefferson Twp. and Trotwood, said Montgomery County Administrator Michael Colbert.

“When you look at the south end of Dayton proper, the infrastructure is there,” he said. “The goal is to expand that not only to the north, but to the rural areas. Then once we get the infrastructure in place, the next component will deal with the cost and speed.”

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Access to devices in Montgomery County

The ownership of a desktop or laptop computer or a smart phone or tablet device to access the internet lags the national average in seven Montgomery County communities.
CityDevice ownership
Huber Heights93.4%
West Carrollton92.5%
United States90.3%
Montgomery County89.6%
State of Ohio89.1%
Source: U.S. Census QuickFacts, 2015-2019

Assistant Montgomery County Administrator Tyler Small said it can cost as much as $26,000 a mile to run overhead fiber-optic cables and $173,000 a mile if buried, making providers reluctant to run lines to low-population areas and necessitating public-private partnerships.

“It’s really expensive to run fiber. With companies who are trying to make a profit, they just can’t do that,” he said.

Colbert said the effort is another step in the Montgomery County Digital Equity Initiative launched last year. A $3 million program using primarily CARES Act funds put Wi-Fi into five public housing communities and devices into the hands of residents. The county also added internet access to the exterior of facilities, including the Job Center, and will also make it available at the new Montgomery County Employment Opportunity Center, scheduled to open this summer at Westown Shopping Center.

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Formation of the steering committee of community partners will begin soon and a request for proposals is being drawn up for a consultant to work alongside the committee to develop strategies to address the gaps and identify potential funding sources, according to the county.

It remains unclear how much money the county needs to put high-speed broadband within reach of every resident, said Lieberman, who sits on the National Association of Counties Broadband Task Force. But the county is going to “dive right in” and shoot to have a framework in place this summer to take advantage of any state broadband funding or allowable American Rescue Plan funds, she said.

“If we have our plan, that will just put us ahead of the game,” she said.

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