Ohio communities explore broadband plans through program

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Broadband access can be pretty hit or miss in places like Tuscarawas County, Ohio, and in many of the state’s southern, Appalachian counties, where there are more trees and hills, and where there is lower population density.

Local governments and communities have a lot of options to try to expand their access, with different types of broadband like fiber optics, wireless and satellite, and many state and federal funding programs available. But it all has to start with a plan.

So, Ohio’s broadband office recently launched the BroadbandOhio Community Accelerator program. The program is designed to help communities come up with local broadband plans so they are ready to take advantage of funding opportunities.

“If we want to stay competitive, we need to have affordable, reliable internet broadband service to our areas, just like they did with electricity,” said Tuscarawas County Commissioner Chris Abbuhl.

Program

Ohio State University Extension, the Benton Institute and Heartland Forward are working on the program with the BroadbandOhio office. The Benton Institute and OSU Extension are counseling communities in the program to help them identify goals, gather data about their areas, understand what funding is available to them and target funding to meet their goals.

After Abbuhl heard about the program through the County Commissioners Association of Ohio, he asked Marla Akridge, executive director of the Tuscarawas County Economic Development Corporation, to put together a team for the county. So far, the Tuscarawas County team has 18 representatives from hospitals, schools, elected officials’ offices, libraries, businesses and more.

There are four teams in the first cohort, including teams in Defiance and Shelby counties, and an Ohio Valley Regional Development Commission team, in addition to the one in Tuscarawas County. The teams meet once a week for 15 weeks, ending in mid-September. In early meetings, Akridge said, the team has focused on putting together a broadband survey for county residents.

Gina Collinsworth, public information coordinator for the Ohio Valley Regional Development Commission, is hoping the local governments she works with will be able to take advantage of funding opportunities once they have a plan, or even as they start to form the plan this summer.

She also noted some funds have been awarded to providers in the state already, and now is a good time for local and county governments to find ways to support those providers in their work.

“If you don’t have broadband, how can you build communities that are connected and taking advantage of the opportunities that are out there?” Collinsworth said. “I think in our broadband work, we are really wanting to get the message out to the people that broadband is also vital infrastructure.”

Access

Broadband access has implications for everything from education, to jobs and commerce, to healthcare. Akridge has worked in economic development in multiple places for more than 20 years. She views broadband as a transformational infrastructure, especially in rural areas — not just for households and families, but for businesses.

“We have to think beyond certain speeds for a family of four,” Akridge said.

Both the Tuscarawas County team and the Ohio Valley Regional Development Commission team already have a pretty good idea of what the access situation is in their areas.

A study by Reid Consulting Group for the Ohio Mideastern Governments Association found 30% of households in Tuscarawas County don’t have access to internet at broadband speeds. Almost 20% did not even have access to internet at speeds of 10 megabits per second download and 1 megabit per second upload.

Collinsworth said studies have found about a third of households in Appalachian Ohio do not have access to internet at broadband speeds. Collinsworth said solutions might vary from county to county, but the region struggles with some of the same challenges as other rural areas — hilly topography, and lower population density.

“We’re just trying to find the solutions — plural — what will work for our counties,” she said.

Collinsworth said her team also plans to look at digital equity. She wants to make sure the team hears from a wide range of people in the region about what they need, and to make sure that residents know what is available to them as far as things like reduced rate programs and library device lending programs.

Solutions

Many people point to fiber optics as the gold standard of broadband expansion. Fiber networks tend to be faster and may be more likely to be able to meet people’s needs further into the future.

But there are people in some areas who don’t have any access to broadband. In Tuscarawas County, and in the Ohio Valley Region, the teams are looking at all options.

Collinsworth said satellite broadband in the form of Starlink, which uses low earth orbit satellites, could work for some areas. Abbuhl suggested wireless broadband could help reach customers where it’s hard for companies to justify the cost of building out fiber broadband.

“Some say it has to be all hardwire for the future,” Abbuhl said. “I think you have to have a combination. I just want to see that people can get connected.”

Funding

One of his concerns is how spread out funding is in different programs and agencies.

“I think there’s the money out there to get everyone connected, but it’s not in a single source,” he said.

Different agencies and programs also have different criteria for projects. In some cases, an area might not be underserved enough to get funding through a particular program. And different programs might require different speeds or types of broadband to be built out. In many cases, all of that means that larger providers have an easier time getting funding, Abbuhl said.

Collinsworth is hoping the program and the BroadbandOhio office can help county and local governments learn more about what funding is available, and alert them about new funding opportunities.

Future

Part of the challenge with expanding broadband is making sure it is upgraded over the years to stay up to date with the access and speeds people need.

Abbuhl mentioned the county upgraded its 911 system a few years ago and went with the state’s system, which allows the county to get equipment upgraded automatically every few years for a decade. He suggested it’s important to look at broadband infrastructure in a similar way, with an eye towards keeping the technology current.

“Broadband is always going to change,” he said.

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Reporter Sarah Donaldson is a former 4-Her and a Mount Union graduate from Columbiana County, Ohio. She enjoys playing and writing music, cooking, and storytelling in many forms. She can be reached at 800-837-3419 or sarah@farmanddairy.com.

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