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Signal going the ‘last mile’

Broadband soon coming to county’s underserved areas

Staff photo / Allie Vugrincic A Spectrum employee uses a bucket truck to install cable lines in downtown Warren recently.

Reliable high-speed internet access almost overnight proved to be a necessity due to the COVID-19 pandemic essentially forcing students to learn at and adults to work from home.

A bill signed by Gov. Mike DeWine in May will bring that access to unserved or underserved areas, which are among the most affected by the pandemic.

In the Mahoning Valley, areas of northern Trumbull County such as Bristol and Kinsman townships; and southwest Mahoning County such as Sebring; have been most affected, according to Athens-based organization Connecting Appalachia.

Connecting Appalachia is an organization that advocates for broadband disparities focused on access to quality, affordable broadband, its website states.

Sean O’Malley of the organization said there is a strong likelihood of slow internet access in areas with smaller population density.

“The more houses per square mile, the greater the likelihood that internet speeds will meet or exceed the Federal Communication Commission’s minimum standard,” he said.

Accessibility maps provided by Connecting Appalachia show the northern parts of Trumbull County have the slowest internet speeds.

While southwestern Mahoning County has only slightly speedier internet access, it still proves difficult for residents in those communities to connect online.

The Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion Grant Program outlines plans to connect Ohioans and cross the last mile, said state Rep. Michael J. O’Brien, D-Warren, a key Mahoning Valley proponent of the effort.

THE PROGRAM

O’Brien said one of the main reasons broadband is scarce in those areas is because internet providers, such as Spectrum and CenturyLink, are not able to see a return on infrastructure investments there. The expansion program helps fill funding gaps so the providers won’t lose money.

“For instance, if you live on one part of a road and none of your neighbors want to connect, but you do, presently the provider will not connect you for the infrastructure dollars they have to invest to get you broadband. The only way they would get money back is if everybody had it,” O’Brien said. “This grant fills those gaps.”

Such is the case for Jen Samuels of Corinth Court Road in Farmdale.

Samuels said the household gets internet provided by CenturyLink but called the service spotty. She said she voiced concern when her children, then seventh-grade, third-grade and preschool students in the Joseph Badger School District, learned they would be attending school online.

“I told the middle school principal we don’t have reliable internet, and they provided us with a Verizon hot spot and that worked great. But without it, we could not do any online schooling,” Samuels said.

Prior to the school helping out, Samuels said she used her phone’s hot spot and “it didn’t work well.”

“If we have to go to all home again, without broadband, we wouldn’t be able to do it,” Samuels said.

She also outlined the difficulty of getting reliable broadband service — saying the entire road would have to sign up for at least three years for the internet provider even to put a wire on their road.

PROVIDER RESPONSE

CenturyLink and its parent company, Lumen, are among the many providers in the Valley. Danielle Spears, corporate communications with Lumen, confirmed the difficulty of broadband accessibility but said the company is proud of the work done thus far to bring broadband to Ohio. She said the company has invested more than $62 million and laid more than 13,000 fiber route miles.

“Areas that are less populated are difficult to serve due to the costs of building and maintaining the network infrastructure,” Spears said. “We’re always looking at ways to expand or enhance our broadband services, which includes working on creative public-private partnerships that encourage broadband investment.”

She added the grant program will help deliver broadband to underserved areas, and Lumen supports closing the digital divide and will work with policymakers to “ensure support is targeted to the areas that need it most.

“The work behind the recently enacted Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion Grant Program will help broadband providers continue to review locations within their network that could potentially benefit from the grant program and bring high-speed internet services to more homes and businesses,” she said.

A representative from Spectrum stated the company is “looking to extend its network and provide service to additional homes or businesses.

“Many factors can impact our buildout decisions, including distance from our existing network facilities, the number of homes and businesses we can serve, geography, construction challenges like permitting and utility pole attachments and overall economic feasibility,” public relations manager Leigh Byrd said. “We continue to invest in deploying broadband to more unserved areas of the state…”

Byrd added Spectrum has met with the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments staff about potential partnerships on additional broadband deployment and that from 2018 to 2020, the company extended its network to reach an additional 2.5 million homes and small businesses in the United States.

PUBLIC SUPPORT

School districts, libraries and even local businesses did their part to help quell the issues of students not being able to connect.

Similar to Badger, the Bristol Local School District also supplied computers and wireless hot spots to its families. District technology director Ted Ragan said one concern raised by families is poor or no internet access.

“We provided 230 devices for take-home use,” Ragan said. “We also provided Verizon hot spots to families that need internet access.”

While most, if not all, libraries closed during the pandemic, a good majority played a role in connecting people who have poor internet access.

Cheryl French, manager of the Bristol Public Library, and Kimberly Garrett, director of the Kinsman Free Public Library, both said their respective libraries had hot spots available for the public to use for a week at a time, as well as access to the library’s free Wi-Fi.

“People parked close to the building after hours — an indicator they are using the Wi-Fi,” French said.

She added a couple of cars typically are in the parking lot after hours. The same goes for the library in Kinsman.

“We do get quite a few people who use the library to service their internet needs. During COVID-19, you could often come to out building, even when we were closed, (and see people) using our internet in our parking lot,” Garrett said. “We would have students and other people coming to sit in the parking lot for an hour or two to do their work because they didn’t have internet connection at home.”

Librarians at the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County’s Sebring branch also said the parking lot will have a couple of people in cars using the free Wi-Fi.

“The Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County is helping Sebring residents connect to the internet and gain much-needed technology skills,” Jeff Mamula, community relations and multimedia specialist with the library, said.

Mamula also said the library boosted its Wi-Fi signals, added wireless access points for the use of devices in the library’s parking lot and provided Wi-Fi hotspots for patrons to check out, among other things.

O’Brien said he has heard some of his constituents utilize the Wi-Fi at businesses such as Panera, Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s, in addition to public libraries.

“One million people in Ohio were either unserved or underserved. COVID-19 really highlighted the need for broadband from students being educated virtually, telemedicine, applying for unemployment and working from home,” he said.

For Samuels, Good Intentions Market and Cafe in Kinsman opened its doors for school-aged children to do their school work online.

“They heard several of us with kids that made mention about internet, and they said we could come and use their internet,” she said.

APPLICATION

For those interested in getting high-speed internet, O’Brien said to contact local government officials, such as county commissioners, trustees and city council representatives.

“The consumer would contact their local government, and the local government would contact the providers and the providers would then fill out an application (for the grant),” he said.

There are application deadlines for service providers. In 2022, $230 million is available in funding and in 2023, $20 million is available. O’Brien said the providers will apply for the grant on behalf of an entire area. He said this initiative will help bring Ohio “up to par” with other states.

“High-speed internet is a must,” he said. “But now, the state will be entirely covered by broadband. It was something 20 years ago that maybe no one envisioned.”

To give a timeline for when areas could see progress, O’Brien said September was the first opportunity for grant proposals to be submitted, and the deadline is Nov. 6. Service providers will start putting the proper infrastructure in place next year, he said.

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