Ohio leaders discuss broadband, tourism at state of the region event

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Appalachian Ohio has been on the wrong side of the digital divide since the Internet was first invented. It’s one of the many challenges the region has faced regarding infrastructure and economic development.

But now, Ohio is seeing historic investments in its Appalachian region, both on the state and federal level. Leaders in the region are calling it a possible crossroads for the area.

“There’s a lot of momentum right now for revitalization of Appalachian Ohio,” said Mike Jacoby, president of Ohio Southeast Economic Development.

At the 10th annual Appalachian Ohio State of the Region conference May 10, speakers discussed investments and opportunities in Ohio’s Appalachian region, including in broadband and tourism.

Broadband

State and federal investments in broadband are a big part of that. The BroadbandOhio office recently finished awarding $232 million in residential broadband expansion grants. Much of that went to Appalachian Ohio, said Peter Voderberg, chief of the BroadbandOhio office. Grant contracts are based on milestones for projects, and if an internet service provider does not reach a milestone, the office can deny payments.

In addition to those grants, the office got commitments from some existing providers to build out more broadband over the next two years, in place of giving out grants to other providers that would compete with them.

If those providers don’t comply with their two-year commitments, Voderberg said, they will owe the state whatever money the state would have given out in grants if they had not made that commitment. For example, if the state was set to award a $1 million grant in one area, and did not because a different provider said they planned to build there in the next two years, that provider would owe the state $1 million if it does not fulfill that commitment.

Accountability

In the last 30 years, said Tom Reid, of Reid Consulting Group, the Federal Communications Commission has doled out $100 billion, mainly to large providers, to fix the problem, with very little accountability. That’s why Ohio’s broadband office is focusing on making sure the funding it awards goes with specifications that hold providers accountable for doing what they say they will.

The state office has also relied more on speed test data than the FCC’s 477 form data, which has historically overestimated broadband coverage. The FCC is in the process of updating its maps, and trying to account for some of that inaccuracy by allowing challenges to its maps with speed test data. But it is still going through that process.

“We have the 477 maps, which kind of show a rosy picture. We have the Ookla speed test data … which are going to show a little bit more of the dire straits that some of the areas that we talked about are in,” Voderberg said. “So the truth is probably somewhere on the spectrum between the two maps.”

Equity

Much of the focus has been on getting broadband infrastructure out there, but on the heels of that, Reid said, is digital equity. Having broadband access also gives people better access to education, healthcare and the economy.

“Internet is no longer a luxury. It’s a necessity,” Voderberg said. “We’re using it for things that people never thought we were going to use it for before.”

Addressing digital equity includes connecting people with the federal affordable connectivity program, working with providers to make sure low-cost options are available and promoting digital literacy skills, Voderberg said.

Reid referenced the 1934 Communications Act, which set a goal to have equitable, fairly priced services across the country.

“It’s not a new goal,” he said. “It’s just that there hasn’t been accountability.”

Tourism

Broadband access also has implications for things like tourism.

“It’s broadband that makes it possible for businesses to set up and develop in these rural areas,” said Eli Flournoy, executive director of Sugarbush Valley Impact Investments, who talked about Bailey Trails System. The trail system, which will go through Wayne National Forest, also creates opportunities for economic development in the community around the trail, he said.

The Appalachian region of Ohio has several opportunities to increase tourism in the next couple of years, speakers said. In addition to the development of new trail systems, Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, a group of archeological sites in southern Ohio, has been nominated for the World Heritage List. It will be up for consideration in 2023.

That designation would make it one of just 25 World Heritage Sites in the U.S., which could draw international visitors. The key, speakers said, will be making sure there are other things for tourists to visit in the area as well — more local shops and restaurants, more tourist destinations and more information available to help people find their way around.

“These visitors … they’re not visiting a site. They’re visiting your communities, of which the site is the principal draw,” said Brent Lane, senior executive in residence at Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs. “So they want to engage in a lot of different ways. Give them that opportunity, and they will spend money, and they will stay longer. That’s your best case scenario.”

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