Breaking the cycle of limited broadband access, knowledge

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4-H'ers work on a soldering activity at a club meeting.
Leah Brown and Meagan Rutledge, both members of the Carroll County Coders 4-H club, work on a soldering activity at a club meeting. Members of the club learn about coding, computers and technology through projects and other activities. (Sarah Donkin photo)

Emily Harsh, a software engineer for Netflix and adviser for the Carroll County Coders, has never second-guessed her decision to work in technology. She works remotely from her home, using wireless internet through Access Ohio Valley. She visits a local McDonald’s or library for wifi when her internet is too slow.

Even in the time spent reporting this story though, Harsh has experienced more outages at her house, lasting anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Although she previously told Farm and Dairy she advocates for more young people staying in rural areas, she admits it’s been challenging.

“I do — after 12 years of working from home and every year thinking there has to be better options soon — second-guess working from home,” she said.

The library and McDonald’s are not permanent solutions, so Harsh is looking for office space to rent. Many buildings will not rent out a single desk, or don’t have more reliable internet than what she has at home.

“It’s all incredibly frustrating and will be costly for me to find an alternate location to work, but I have no other choice,” Harsh said.

At one point in her career, Harsh tried working for a local technology company, but “it was like stepping back in time 15 years compared to what I’m accustomed to.”

If her situation does not improve, she expects to spend more time traveling to her office in California. Harsh has 24 years of experience and can be flexible like this. Others, who are just starting out, don’t have those options.

“I don’t feel that I can confidently recommend living on a farm in rural Carroll County and working from home, in any industry,” she told Farm and Dairy in a recent email. “I say ‘any industry’ because nearly all businesses (soon, even farming and entrepreneurial) require reliable internet access.”

Wireless service

Access Ohio Valley, the wireless internet service provider Harsh uses, is one of many companies thinking outside the box to offer access in rural areas. The company, based in Wintersville, Ohio, puts equipment on tall structures, like towers and grain silos, to offer wireless broadband service to people and businesses in range.

John Szczublewski, vice president for the company, said the idea is to turn the structures into large, wireless routers. A tower can serve several hundred people and reach households and businesses 10-15 miles away if they have a clear line of sight to the tower.

“Further from the towers, the signals start to become weaker,” he said.

Szczublewski said the company works with farmers, villages and others who own grain silos and towers to expand its service.

Companies like this can sometimes offer access in places where expanding is cost-prohibitive for traditional providers.

But there are still challenges, as Harsh’s situation illustrates.

Szczublewski said he was not aware of any outstanding issues of the sort that Harsh described. He said direct hits from lightning can damage equipment, and power outages from storms can cause internet outages if a power line connected to a tower goes down.

Airband initiative

Microsoft is taking its own approach to offering wireless internet with the Microsoft Airband Initiative. It uses a combination of television “white space,” or unused channels, fiber optics and satellite coverage.

Microsoft believes its approach could reduce operating costs by up to 80%, compared to just using fiber optic cable.

The company hopes to offer access to 2 million rural Americans by July 4, 2022, by directly investing in telecommunications companies for projects, investing in digital skills training for newly-connected communities and offering royalty-free access to some of its TV white space technology.

In Ohio and West Virginia, Microsoft has already begun working with Agile Networks to bring access to about 284,000 rural customers using TV white space and other technologies.

Legislation

Legislative efforts to expand broadband access span both Republican and Democratic administrations.

The Obama administration established initiatives like ConnectED, ConnectHomeUSA and ConnectALL, starting in 2010. The Trump administration followed up with efforts in 2017, including the American Broadband Initiative.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture currently offers more than $700 million annually in broadband programs, with plans to add $600 million in additional funds to expand rural broadband infrastructure. On Oct. 7, it announced another $152 million for rural broadband projects in 14 states, including Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Ohio was not included.

In 2018, the FCC ran Auction 903, which allowed providers to bid on an eligible area and get subsidies to deploy and maintain coverage to that area.

The FCC plans to provide support for 10 years, with a total budget of $198 billion to be dispersed over that time. The goal was to offer access where providing service is cost-prohibitive without subsidies.

The FCC believes 700,000 rural homes and small businesses across the country will be offered broadband service as a result.

No providers bid on areas in Appalachian Ohio, however, according to an assessment by Appalachian Partnership for Economic Growth, Buckeye Hills Regional Council and Reid Consulting Group.

In a bid to spur investment off the beaten path, the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act established “opportunity zones,” which are economically distressed areas where investors can receive tax benefits on investments.

Pennsylvania congressman Glenn Thompson said local communities decide what to prioritize in their opportunity zones. Theoretically, areas that struggle with broadband can prioritize increasing access.

In the budget signed July 18, Ohio added a 10% nonrefundable income tax credit for those who invest in Ohio’s opportunity zones.

In addition, InnovateOhio, along with the Ohio Department of Transportation and other partners, is developing a statewide broadband strategy, which will allow the state to receive more Connect America Funds from the FCC.

Resources needed

As reporting for this series went on and writing started to wrap up, emails were still coming in, and new issues were still coming to light. Harsh’s situation changed. Nonprofits working on solutions made progress. New research came out. Legislation advanced. New projects launched.

What hasn’t changed is that there are still millions of rural Americans who don’t have reliable broadband access.

Dan Manning, of Connected Nation, said the nonprofit company has been working with internet service providers and communities on fine-tuning broadband maps since the mid-2000s. That’s when ConnectKentucky, the first branch of the organization, formed in response to the lack of reliable broadband access in rural areas.

“It’s getting better slowly over time,” Manning said, “certainly not as fast as we’d like it to be.”

A map for Ohio is scheduled to come out at the end of the year. Surveys for businesses and residents in Ohio are still open until Nov. 20.

Other than better mapping, “it’s gonna take a fair amount of money, that’s for sure,” Manning said.

Manning believes it will take a combination of community investment, providers’ investments, improvements in technology and money from the federal government to bring broadband service to all rural Americans.

Breaking the cycle

When they do get it — if they get it — they may still struggle with limited digital skills.

This is the gap that the National 4-H Council and Microsoft are trying to fill with the 4-H Tech Changemakers initiative, which teaches 4-H’ers how to conduct digital skills training for their communities.

Harsh said the hope is that by teaching children to work with adults, they can help rural residents of all ages get more comfortable with broadband and with talking to providers. That, in turn, could lead to more demand and higher adoption rates for broadband in homes.

“Somewhere, you gotta break the cycle,” Harsh said.

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