(Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series on the issue of rural broadband access.)
CARROLLTON, Ohio — As other 4-H’ers worked with their animals or displayed their still projects at the Carroll County Fair in July, Leah Brown, 14, and Jessi Kramer, 15, set up in the 4-H building, armed with handouts about broadband access.
Their goal: to educate the public about rural broadband and digital literacy.
They are both members of the Carroll County Coders, or C++, one of many 4-H clubs in Ohio and 14 other states who are part of the 4-H Tech Changemakers initiative. The initiative is a partnership between the National 4-H Council and Microsoft that teaches 4-H’ers how to lead digital skills training and teach the public about the value of digital tools.
Jenny Strickler, 4-H extension educator in Coshocton County, is helping lead the same initiative in her county. She has focused on teaching lessons about safely navigating websites to other clubs with her 4-H volunteers.
In her county, however, limited internet access has presented challenges.
“Every single lesson requires use of the internet,” Strickler said.
So far, enough people at each lesson have had access to continue, sometimes sharing devices, but Strickler doesn’t know what they would do if they end up in a location where no one has access.
“The goal is teaching digital literacy. We need to be able to access things to be able to teach about them,” Strickler said.
From 2013-2017, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated only 66.4% of homes in Coshocton County had a broadband internet subscription. It also estimated Carroll County was only slightly better, with 69.3% of households having subscriptions.
Rural areas have lagged behind suburban and urban locations in broadband access. Still, no one knows how bad the problem is. Some rural areas that are marked as having broadband access on Federal Communications Commission maps are, according to residents, not actually covered.
At a July regional broadband forum hosted by Connected Nation Ohio in Caldwell, representatives explained part of the issue. The maps are divided into census blocks, and if one location in a block has service, the whole block is marked as served.
The blocks are about 2 acres on average in urban areas, but can be 10-15 times larger in rural areas like Meigs County, which has about 12 households per square mile.
Dan Manning, of Connected Nation, estimated more than a million Ohioans do not have access to fast, reliable broadband at home.
“The FCC just didn’t understand rural areas,” Manning said. “These carve-outs are really damaging, because it looks like it’s done.”
In December 2018, Microsoft President Brad Smith said the first step to expanding broadband access is to come up with more accurate information about who does and does not have access. Connected Nation is one organization working on more accurate maps by talking to broadband providers and rural citizens to find out what locations actually have service.
The 4-H Tech Changemakers initiative is also part of a host of efforts aimed at solving the broadband problem. Suggested solutions abound, with some groups focusing on fiber optics and others on wireless technology.
Emily Harsh, adviser for the Carroll County Coders, started the club to help students in the area learn more about technology, coding and computers.
“We didn’t have anything like this when I was a kid,” said Harsh.
Harsh graduated from Malvern High School, which had three levels of computer science classes. She got a degree in business from Kent State University, but started working at an internet service provider her friend founded during college.
“We all basically taught ourselves,” Harsh said. Now, she is in her 24th year as a paid software engineer.
As a Carroll County native, she noticed that most students in the county had limited opportunities in technology. So, in her club, 4-H’ers work on coding and computer-related projects.
Through the club, these 4-H’ers have seen a world of opportunity — but they still live in a rural area.
Many club members struggle personally with a lack of access to broadband services.
Even rural households that have broadband access may struggle with slow speeds and outages.
The census bureau defines broadband subscriptions as anything capable of delivering speeds faster than dial-up internet.
Two key phrases to note: “capable” and “dial-up.” Dial-up speeds top out around 56 kilobits per second, according to Purdue University. The FCC measures broadband in megabits per second, and one megabit is equal to 1,000 kilobits.
Also, internet speeds can vary throughout the day. So, even if a household has a subscription that advertises high speeds, it may only get these high speeds at certain times of the day, especially times when fewer people are using the internet.
C++ member, Meagan Rutledge, 14, said between herself, her three brothers and her parents using phones and computers, the internet has been slow at her Carroll County home over the last year. Sometimes, if it isn’t working while she is trying to do homework, they have to reset the connection.
“If that doesn’t work, then you’ll have to do it either early in the morning … or you’ll just have to go to school and work on it when you have time,” Rutledge said.
Though her parents have tried calling their provider to ask about issues with their access, Rutledge said these calls can last up to two hours, and in the end, “nothing would change.”
While Rutledge may have access at her school, some schools do not have broadband or cell service either. River View Local Schools superintendent Dalton Summers works in Warsaw, Ohio, in Coshocton County.
The school district spans 376 square miles, but only has 2,000 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. The sheriff’s office is a rural 12 miles from the main campus.
Up until last year, the main campus did not even have cell phone service. That changed after Summers, along with the village council, the sheriff’s department and the county wrote letters explaining why they needed access.
Summers said lack of cell phone and internet access is a serious safety issue for schools. If teachers and administrators do not have cell phone service, administrators cannot send out mass text alerts in the event of an emergency, such as a lock-down, a tornado or a severe storm.
Preparing for the future
It also can present challenges with online testing.
“We’re not gonna not use technology just because it’s a struggle for us,” Summers said.
Students from one elementary school in the district, which was just shut down last year, used to take a bus about 25 miles to take tests online at another location.
“We’ve got to get our kids used to using technology … it’s as important as a piece of paper and a pencil was when I went to school in the ‘80s,” Summers said. “We can’t prepare them for a life that doesn’t exist anymore; we’ve got to prepare them for the future.”
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