Residents in rural Ohio are familiar with the challenges that come without access to broadband services, but those areas have now been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. With schools, restaurants and libraries closed simultaneously, rural residents have been cut off from the only hot spots to which they have access. Many schools had to send home paper packets with their students at the close of school and have not had any face-to-face interaction with them since, which could cause rural students to lag behind the rest of the state.
Broadband access has been a priority issue for Farm Bureau the past several years, and the organization continues to advocate for it during this pandemic.
To help highlight the challenges, the Buckeye Hills Regional Council, Ohio University, Athens County Economic Development Council and the Appalachian Regional Commission conducted a study of eight counties in southeast Ohio in November 2019. The study found 80% to 90% of the “rural expanses” (less than 20 households per square mile) had no access to broadband. The study highlighted two census blocks in Meigs County where one household in each block had access to broadband, so the Federal Communications Commission lists the entire block as served by broadband. This listing consequently makes these blocks ineligible for federal grants to expand access.
State Reps. Rick Carfagna and Michael O’Brien introduced House Bill 13 to help tackle the issue of broadband access in Ohio. The bill would create the Residential Broadband Expansion Program, allowing broadband providers to apply to the State of Ohio for a grant. The bill defines unserved and underserved areas of eligibility and gives preference to unserved areas. Farm Bureau has been engaged in the process and will continue to advocate for the least populated areas to be served since it is often not economically feasible for broadband providers to reach them.
Farm Bureau also continues to push federal leaders to address the inaccurate mapping of broadband access and recognize that more resources and creative solutions are needed to bring accessible broadband to all corners of the state. Ohio Farm Bureau is asking for a more coordinated effort between the state and federal government.