Washington County residents form broadband cooperative

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A person sits at a computer, video conferencing with multiple people.

In Washington County, Ohio, the community is taking rural broadband into its own hands.

David Brown, of Lowell, Ohio, has worked from home for years. He currently works in cybersecurity, though he has had different types of jobs in more than 30 years working in tech. He has enough access for work, but does not have fiber broadband.

He was used to the challenges of working remotely, but when a pandemic kicked his friends and neighbors online in March, he realized that it was an issue for all of them.

“There’s no real broadband solution,” he said.

Peggy Bailey, a neighbor and friend, didn’t have any internet at home when her job went online in the spring. When her kids were in school, she had a mobile hotspot device so they could get online. It worked, but was expensive and slow. She got rid of it when her kids went to college.

“Then, boom, the pandemic hits, and everybody’s scrambling,” she said.

She is working from another hotspot device. Again, it works, but can be slow.

“We just got to talking,” Bailey said. “He said, ‘we need to solve this.’”

So, Brown, Bailey and other community members formed the Southeast Ohio Broadband Cooperative. More than 1,500 people in the area have expressed interest in the cooperative so far.

Maps

Washington County, in southeastern Ohio, is predominantly rural. The Federal Communications Commission’s broadband deployment maps suggest that 100% of the county has access to at least one broadband provider. Data from multiple other organizations, however, suggests that the FCC’s maps overstate coverage significantly.

Since funding for broadband infrastructure depends partly on those maps, areas that are marked as covered struggle to get funding, even if they are not actually covered.

Organized

Brown believes a cooperative could help overcome rural broadband challenges.

“Electric cooperatives worked,” Brown said. “Why can’t we do the same thing for broadband?”

Bret Allphin, of Buckeye Hills Regional Council, a group that works on community development in southeastern Ohio, has seen many other communities and citizen groups show interest in rural broadband, but this is the first one he’s aware of that has actually organized and established itself as a nonprofit.

Obstacles

This isn’t the first time Brown has been part of a broadband expansion effort, though. He worked in networking for Horry Telephone Cooperative, in South Carolina, and the cooperative worked with Lumbee River Electric Membership Corporation, in North Carolina, to bring service  to southern North Carolina.

But it’s not an easy problem to solve. Cost is a barrier. Bringing fiber broadband to all underserved areas in eight southeastern Ohio counties could cost nearly $5 million, according to a 2019 study by Buckeye Hills Regional Council.

The cooperative, Brown said, is looking at a mix of fiber and fixed wireless broadband, which could be cheaper and faster to deploy.

“It’s not the end all be all solution, but [wireless] will get people connected quickly,” he said

But he is still hoping to get some grant or loan funding to start building infrastructure. After that, Brown expects the cooperative to become self-sufficient within a year.

“It’s getting that first couple of towers up and connections made and clients online that’s the hard part,” he said.

So, the first step is to challenge the FCC maps so they can apply for funding.

Speed tests

The cooperative is doing this by conducting speed tests. People can test their broadband service at their house or business, or enter their address from another location if they have no service at that address. So far, results are showing that about 29% of the people responding do not have service.

But the FCC defines broadband as 25 megabits-per-second download and 3 megabits-per-second upload speeds. By that standard, more than 70% do not have broadband download speeds.

“They are overstating their coverage,” Brown said. “We’re doing the speed test to prove that.”

Funding

Despite strong indicators that maps are not as accurate as originally believed, the FCC and other agencies have continued to roll out broadband funding through programs, including the recently launched the $20 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

Two FCC commissioners, Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks, have criticized the launch of the new fund on multiple occasions this year, referencing the mapping issues.

“We have this backwards. We are giving out funding before rolling up our sleeves and doing the hard work to fix our maps,” Rosenworcel said in a July 17 statement.

The FCC was ordered to make changes to how it collects, verifies and reports broadband data with the Broadband DATA Act, in March 2020. But that process isn’t done yet.

Accountability

Another part of the issue, some say, is that it’s hard to tell where some previously distributed funds actually went.

“Service providers across the country have received something like $80 billion in funding over the last 15-20 years,” Allphin said. “It’s difficult to tell where that money actually went and what it did.”

Allphin would like to see a better system for accountability. The council is urging the state to designate a watchdog before more funds go out.

Despite the criticism of the fund, Allphin said it could benefit rural Ohio. The council pushed back on some of the inaccurate data to make sure as much of the region as possible was eligible for funding.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Allphin said. “Now, is that subsidy going to be enough to entice somebody to offer service? I don’t know.”

Cost

The cooperative is working on estimates of what it would cost to deploy broadband in the area. The speed test and mapping will help Brown get a better sense of how and where to deploy broadband.

The cooperative did estimate that in the north-central part of the county, it can bring access to 75-80% of unserved people for about $250,000.

“We’re not talking about billions,” Brown said.

Important. While the need for broadband is clear to many in rural areas, Allphin said, to others, it may not be as clear.

Some Washington County residents don’t even have cell service at their homes, Bailey said. In an emergency, they would have to drive up the road for cell service to call 911.

“That could be a matter of life and death,” Bailey said.

Allphin believes 100% of residents need access.

“As Appalachia, we often settle for less,” he said. “That’s been our narrative for decades, and we don’t want that to be the narrative in this story.”

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