When the topic of rural broadband and the lack of affordable, reliable service comes up, many people assume that the issue pertains to Ohioans that reside by the river in the far southern stretches of the state, in the southeastern Ohio foothills of Appalachia or the most rural parts of western or northeastern Ohio.
While there are indeed major challenges in those areas, you don’t have to go very far outside of the most metropolitan areas of Ohio before access to broadband fizzles out. As you can see in the new digital map from the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, there are still many parts of Ohio reporting connection speeds that fall below the FCC’s current benchmark for fixed broadband service of 25 Mbps download, 3 Mbps upload.
I live just 45 minutes from downtown Columbus, and we do not have broadband service on our farm. When we were all working from home at the same time our kids were learning from home, competing for what limited bandwidth was available to us through mobile networks and satellite became a source of consternation for many families like mine. Now it looks as though many of our members that feel my pain, the 39% of rural residents who don’t have access to broadband, may be getting some relief soon.
One of the largest line items in Ohio’s next budget, which Gov. Mike DeWine signed in July, contains $250 million for the newly created Ohio Rural Broadband Expansion Grant Program. These grants will be offered to internet service providers to help build the much-needed infrastructure for faster internet access to the 1 million Ohioans, or 11.7% of residents, who do not have access to reliable, high-speed internet simply because of where they live.
This was welcome news for Ohio Farm Bureau, as it was high on our priority list and was included in our 2021 Ohio Agriculture and Rural Communities Action Plan. In fact, I wrote to the General Assembly and emphasized how rural Ohioans’ quality of life depends on technology. I shared that whether we use it for education, business, health care or entertainment, our need for reliable internet access is critical. With new broadband access comes increased economic opportunities, especially considering the current changes taking place in the workforce. Without it, Ohioans in these unserved and underserved areas will continue to fall behind.
The expansion of rural broadband across Ohio also will give farmers essential access so they can follow commodity markets in real time, use the latest precision agriculture tools and even get access to new markets worldwide.
Although a quarter of a billion dollars is a huge first step to offering everyone access to broadband, it will take additional efforts on all fronts, along with some “out of the box” thinking to connect all Ohioans. That could include the formation of public-private partnerships to help plan, fund, regulate and maintain high-speed internet serving middle mile and last mile customers. It could be local government, education and businesses collaborating to increase demand for rural areas. Even nontraditional providers, like electric and telecommunications cooperatives could deploy broadband service.
The internet is no longer a luxury item. Many of us rely on connectivity to maintain the health of our families, our communities and society as a whole, making it a necessity for all Ohioans, including rural areas.