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Broaden Valley broadband with Rescue Act funds

If Americans have learned anything from the past 13 months of shutdowns, lockdowns and quarantines wrought by the monstrous COVID-19 pandemic, it is that access to quality high-speed internet service has played an increasingly dominant role in our daily lives.

Workers rely on it to perform their job duties from the comfort of their homes. Students depend on it to continue their education in the absence of traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Elected officials use it to conduct business publicly but safely. Senior citizens turn to it for telehealth medical appointments, advice and examinations.

As such, its sudden and expanded use as a coping mechanism for our handicapped economy, educational institutions, local governments, health care services and other domains likely will not disappear once the wrath of the coronavirus plague has been stamped out for good.

At the same time, however, the pandemic has shined another spotlight squarely on the deepening digital divide that continues to separate the haves from the have-nots — those who enjoy the benefits of high-speed, affordable broadband services from those who do not.

The Mahoning Valley is no stranger to that inequitable gap. Consider:

• Access to the fastest, most reliable 1 gigabit broadband service varies enormously among the three counties in the Valley. While 59.2 percent of Mahoning County residents enjoy hooking up to this latest technology, a paltry 6.4 percent of Trumbull County households and an abysmal 0.01 percent of Columbiana County residents have that same opportunity, according to data last year from the Federal Communications Commission.

• Among Ohio’s 600-plus public school districts, Bloomfield-Mesopotamia Local Schools in Trumbull County ranks No. 1 for having the highest share — 87 percent — of children with no reliable home broadband internet access, according to a 2020 study by the Ohio Housing Finance Agency.

• Youngstown ranks as 43rd-worst city in the nation for broadband connectivity, according to a study of U.S. cities by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. Clearly in cities, counties and school districts throughout our region, the gnawing need to close the digital divide only has grown in the age of COVID-19.

That gap, we believe, can be narrowed through the generous resources of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, coupled with a sincere will to succeed among a coherent network of committed partners in the Valley.

The $1.9 trillion federal relief package is dispatching more than $300 million to local governments of the three counties as well as additional untold millions in assistance to school districts. As we noted last week in this space, collaborative efforts among local governments to accomplish major infrastructure goals should be pursued with all due diligence.

The Youngstown-Mahoning County Broadband Team formed in 2017 to confront digital inequities in the community with focal points on business and economic development, K-12 education, libraries, and talent / workforce development. The team, which included two dozen public, private and nonprofit partners, engaged the community on needs and followed through with actions.

A similar panel with representation from all Mahoning Valley constituencies likely could yield similar results.

The value of such collective regionalized problem-solving cannot be overstated. Gaping holes in quality, fast and affordable internet service could be filled, putting all residents on a level playing field.

In the long term, however, strong, reliable and speedy connectivity also would pad the Mahoning Valley’s already impressive calling card for business attraction and economic development. A recent study from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, for example, found that high-speed broadband service lowers unemployment rates and increases job-creation rates markedly.

Clearly, there’s little to be lost and much to be gained by taking this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put Uncle Sam’s generous financial gift to our community to smart use. Though it may have taken a global pandemic to awaken many to the absolute necessity of premium broadband service in our daily lives, such strong, fast, reliable and affordable networks cannot help but pay rich dividends to the economic vitality of the Mahoning Valley long after we place this once-in-a-century pandemic in the rear-view mirror.

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