Howard Barksdale, 66, works through a class at Ashbury Senior Computer Community Center.
In Bowling Green near Toledo, there often are cars in the parking lot and sometimes people on the front bench at the local library although it may be closed.
Near Cambridge in Southeast Ohio, a school bus driver drives her bus to a remote location and parks for several hours a day, and people gather.
Near Fort Loramie, a rural village north of Dayton, a farmer has made a choice: spend $20 more a month so he and his wife can do their work.
They all have one thing in common: People are in desperate need of the Internet. Many rural communities are totally without cable hookups, or service sufficient to support modern work. In low-income areas, the issue is having the money to pay the $600 to $1,000 a year, plus hookup fees.
The Your Voice Ohio collaborative of more than 50 news outlets has heard the distress calls for broadband access for more than a year, and the exasperation has grown during the pandemic.
In Athens in southeast Ohio, for example, Your Voice Ohio news outlets partnered in late 2019 with the Ohio Debate Commission and Ohio University to ask area residents to describe what their community would look like if it were ideal.
A high-poverty Appalachian community, residents listed among their most basic needs access to healthcare, fresh food, transportation, education – and broadband.
And in online Your Voice Ohio dialogues this year, Ohioans said the pandemic has cast a bright light on what Ohio has failed to do – including guarantee that everyone has access to the Internet. In a story distributed to news outlets across the state, Anna Staver of the Columbus Dispatch reported that an estimated one in 10 Ohioans is without reliable internet access.
After hearing repeated complaints about access, reporters in the Your Voice Ohio dialogues partnered to explore the issue in more detail. What they found was, absent state or federal governments providing substantive movement on broadband expansion, that communities and people are improvising during the pandemic.
In Bowling Green, those people in the parking lot and on the bench are tapping into the library’s WiFi, which is on all the time. The library director said that prior to the pandemic, they had research showing people used the library to update their jobless claim, prepare resumes and search for jobs. He surmised that those with laptops sitting on the bench now are doing the same.
The Cambridge area school bus driver, working in the Appalachian foothills, isn’t alone. Across Ohio, including in the flatlands of northwest Ohio, buses have been equipped with internet routers so that students can come to the bus and participate in online classes or do online homework.
Out of fairness to the federal government, some of the quick fixes were funded by the initial pandemic relief in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, approved in March. But a bill that might have accelerated the extension of high-speed broadband to underserved and unserved areas sits in the Ohio legislature where it is likely to die at the end of the year.
New work demands
For Tony Bornhorst of Shelby County, the cost to change providers and upgrade his home service comes out of his pocket. Operating a farm business plus serving as a county commissioner necessitates reliable access for data and teleconferencing. His son-in-law tested the speed of his internet and it was 0.8 megabits per second, about half what is needed for one person in the house to be on a teleconference and significantly slower than the provider’s advertised rate of 3 megabits per second.
That caused difficulties at times in accessing emails and led to virtual meetings freezing or becoming garbled. “If your screen freezes up, you're losing a bit of the conversation,” Bornhorst said.
Like many county employees, Bornhorst has worked from home more often during the COVID-19 pandemic though he still goes into his office in downtown Sidney multiple times a week.
Other county employees have reported similar Internet problems, and he suspects it's widespread through the community. What worries him is that many cannot afford to upgrade to the new, more robust service.
He also said county commissioners have started to consider the implications of having employees work from home. If employees’ home service isn't fast enough, or if they exceed their data cap, should the county pay for their upgrade or overage charges?
“It may be something we may have to consider if this becomes the new norm,” Bornhorst said, adding that he expects this to be an ongoing issue.
Schools, libraries respond
In Perrysburg Schools near Toledo, the school district lost track of about 10 percent of its children when it went to remote learning and had to figure out how to reconnect.
“If a student does not have Internet access, we have partnered with Buckeye Cable to offer families free in-home service,” said Sara Stockwell, director of student services and well-being.
At the Wood County Public Library, which reopened with restricted hours and capacity, money was spent to help the community tap the Internet.
“We had to do two different things,” library director Michael Penrod said. “One, to increase internet access, we bought more and stronger WIFI transmitters for the building, including a more powerful WIFI transmitter to transmit our signal out to the parking lot, so patrons could have stronger WIFI access, even if the building is closed.”
The second was inside. To accommodate social distancing, they had to reduce the number of computer stations, set time limits and install remote software that allows staff to fix computer problems at a distance without leaning over the shoulder of a user.
Numbers are large
The lack of access is widespread. In major cities such as Columbus, an estimated 30 percent of households don’t have access, often because of cost. The National Digital Inclusion Alliance, using census data, found Lorain, Cleveland, Youngstown and Dayton to be among the worst-connected U.S. cities of 50,000 people or more.
Statewide, about 340,000 households likely have no internet access – about as many households as there are in all of Hamilton County, Ohio’s third-largest county.
The numbers, and where those households are is a point of controversy.
Rep. Bob Latta, R-Bowling Green, of the 5th Congressional District, is the ranking Republican on the Energy and Commerce committee’s Communications and Technology subcommittee. He is also a co-chair of the bi-partisan Rural Broadband Caucus.
“One of the things I’m concerned about is that we have to get in the unserved areas. You might not have the speed in some of the underserved areas, but if you are in an unserved area you have nothing,” Latta said.
He said that broadband access allows doctors to provide telehealth services to rural locations – as long as people have the devices to participate.
“With students you can give them a computer to go home with, but what are they going to do when they have no broadband?” Latta said.
On the maps but off the grid
One of the challenges to providing funding, Latta said, is having accurate maps. He said he knew when he saw maps purporting to show which areas in his district have broadband that they were inaccurate.
That’s because those maps reflect the census blocks where broadband providers say they provide service. Census blocks represent several hundred to about 3,000 people and therefore vary significantly in size. A rural block can stretch for miles, while an urban census block may contain only a few densely populated streets.
Rachel Rathore, legislative director in Latta’s office, said that if one household in a census block has broadband access, maps will show that the entire block has service. In rural blocks, there is a high likelihood that that’s not true.
Columbus Dispatch reporter Ceili Doyle recently reported on such a case. In Meigs County in Southeast Ohio, the mapping system allowed a broadband provider and federal officials to suggest that an entire block was served when in fact only one home had service, and it didn’t meet the minimum standards.
Doyle quoted U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, who serves on the Rural Broadband Caucus with Latta. Johnson, R-Marietta, represents southeast Ohio. He said the mistake of federal regulators is to rely on internet providers defining which areas are served on the basis of census blocks.
By looking like areas are well served, they cannot qualify for federal aid.
While regulators wrangle over maps, Ohioans in the Your Voice Ohio conversations express frustration with the inability of leaders to provide infrastructure that now is vital for school, banking, work, health and communicating with friends and relatives.
In one of the online dialogues, which used teleconferencing, a participant had an unstable Internet connection.
In the context of the need for broadband access, another participant pointed out that there’s a unique opportunity. People are hurting and they need jobs.
“The country is in such a bad mental state, I almost think the first thing we have to do is help people heal a little more. Like when it was the Depression, they started the [Tennessee Valley Authority,] building roads, and putting people to work. It helped them feel better about themselves.”
People need jobs now, she said, and they need a broadband infrastructure.
Contributing to this report was Doug Oplinger, project manager and editor for Your Voice Ohio.
Roger LaPointe is a political and government reporter for the Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune and can be emailed at [email protected] Kyle Shaner is the business editor at the Sidney Daily News and can be emailed at [email protected] Both news outlets are part of the AIM Media group.
About this project: This is one in a series of stories on issues Ohioans say are important in this election year. More than 50 news outlets are collaborating in the project under the umbrella of Your Voice Ohio, the nation’s largest
sustained, statewide news media collaborative. Your Voice Ohio is managed and coordinated by the Jefferson Center for New Democratic Processes, a nonpartisan, nonprofit civic engagement organization. The project is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund and Facebook. The Jefferson Center for New Democratic Processes designs and facilitates the dialogues and digital forums.
Retired Akron Beacon Journal managing editor Doug Oplinger directs the media work and can be reached at [email protected]