Disconnected during a crisis: Life in Dayton region without internet

Danique Carter, a job coach at the Goodwill Easterseals, helps clients without internet get access to unemployment. MARSHALL GORBYSTAFF
Danique Carter, a job coach at the Goodwill Easterseals, helps clients without internet get access to unemployment. MARSHALL GORBYSTAFF

An estimated one in six households in the Dayton region do not have internet service during a global pandemic when people are depending on the web like never before.

With Ohioans ordered to shelter in place to slow the spread of COVID-19, residents with service can’t go online to work, learn, access health care or shop from home.

Residents most likely to lack internet service include vulnerable community members, such as the poor and the elderly, officials say.

"For those clients without internet access, it definitely impedes their ability to fully engage with virtual programming opportunities," said Jenny Bonifas, senior director of vocational services with Goodwill Easterseals Miami Valley.

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The isolation caused by the state’s stay-at-home orders can be mitigated using the internet to stay in contact with friends and family members, and combat boredom by streaming videos and movies and downloading other content, said Tim Kambitsch, executive director of the Dayton Metro Library.

“For those without internet access, they are both physically and intellectually sequestered,” he said.

About 710,000 households in Ohio, including about 102,000 in the seven-county Miami Valley region, do not have any internet service at home, according to data from the 2018 U.S. Census American Community Survey and Connected Nation Ohio’s analysis of broadband availability.

About 71% of households in Butler, Champaign, Clark, Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Warren counties subscribe to a fixed broadband service, Connected Nation says, while overall 83.5% get internet from broadband providers or satellite service, mobile phones or some slower types of connections.

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Without internet, people can't access online education, work from home, get current news about the virus and order food and products when stores and restaurants are closed, said Tina Lyden, state director of Connected Nation Ohio, which is focused on increasing Internet access and adoption in the state.

The coronavirus crisis “has affected almost everything we do,” she said.

Under normal circumstances, Dayton-area residents who do not have internet at home could visit local recreation centers, libraries, various public buildings, coffee shops or fast-food restaurants to get access.

But most places offering free Wi-Fi or public computers have been shut down to comply with the state’s stay-at-home order.

The Dayton Metro Library had 540,000 unique sessions last year, in which patrons used desktop and laptop computers with internet access. But library branches have closed to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

The main reason people don’t have internet is because they cannot afford it, and the inequity of internet access disproportionately impacts people of color and poorer residents, said Kambitsch, with the Dayton Metro Library.

In 2018, two-thirds of Ohio households without broadband had household incomes below $35,000, and nearly half had incomes below $20,000, according to a post from Bill Callahan, research and policy director for the Columbus-based National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

The monthly costs of a home Internet connection is at least $60 to $70 each month, he said, which is unaffordable for some Ohioans.

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Some internet providers are offering cheaper plans during this crisis to try to help lower-income residents stay connected, according to the alliance.

Parents who don’t have internet at home can get free broadband, including installation, from Spectrum for 60 days to help families impacted by the coronavirus, the company announced. To sign up, call (844) 488-8395. Spectrum serves all of southwest Ohio.

Some local organizations also are coming up with creative ways to expand internet access to more households.

Dayton Public Schools is offering virtual instruction and video lessons to students and will pass out Chromebook laptops to families that don’t have computer equipment at home. The school district plans to park buses equipped with Wi-Fi in Dayton neighborhoods to provide internet to students in their homes.

Montgomery County Jobs Center recently closed its public computer terminals that visitors used to apply applying for jobs and benefits. But Goodwill Easterseals Miami Valley, in partnership with Montgomery County Jobs & Family Services, is offering public computers and internet access to help file unemployment claims.

This week, David Cranford stopped by the Goodwill Easterseals facility at 660 S. Main St. to borrow a computer to apply for jobless benefits.

Cranford, 55, of Dayton, recently was laid off from his job as a dishwasher at Golden Nugget. The pancake house shut down to comply with the state’s stay-at-home order.

Cranford said he never uses the internet and doesn’t own a computer. He said he’s not interested with what the digital world has to offer.

“I don’t know how to work this thing,” he said. “I don’t know how to use the internet”

Goodwill Easterseals’ computer labs have served more that 250 people in the past two weeks, most of whom don’t have broadband or computers at home, though some have smartphones, said Bonifas, with the organization.

For many clients, Goodwill Easterseals’ computer lab is the only opportunity they have to access a computer, she said.

“For many of the clients we are serving right now, the lack of technology, equipment and internet create a perfect storm and create barriers at such a critical time,” she said.

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