Ohioans are already bridging the digital divide. Will state lawmakers help?
LOWELL – Looming over unplowed backroads still-glistening with snow, a 200-foot beacon of high-speed internet stands tall in Washington County.
Nearly 120 miles southeast of Columbus, Brad Spray glances up at his handiwork.
The cellphone tower, which has beamed reception to Verizon Wireless and AT&T users across the county, thanks to Spray and the Southeast Ohio Broadband Cooperative, will expand wireless internet service to hundreds of residents in Lowell, a village 10 miles north of Marietta.
It's just one of many ways Ohioans are striving to address the state’s digital divide, a gaping inequity exacerbated by COVID-19 that the grassroots cooperative has rallied around. And while approximately 1 million mostly rural Ohioans still live without internet access, as detailed by an in-depth Columbus Dispatch report last October, the state is listening.
Gov. Mike DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted have proposed unparalleled investments in broadband in the governor’s upcoming budget. Their recommendations signify a cautiously optimistic future for Ohio's internet infrastructure.
But that investment will ride on buy-in from an undecided Ohio Statehouse controlled by fellow Republicans who have not been in agreement with DeWine on some issues in recent months.
The little co-op that could
In the beginning of the pandemic, after struggling to tether her company iPad’s hotspot to her laptop, Peggy Bailey complained to her friend David Brown, a Washington County resident and IT/cybersecurity specialist.
“I was using data up the wazoo,” she said. “I knew we needed to do something about it.”
Brown and Bailey connected with James Booth, now a Washington County commissioner, and another local resident, Jessie Headley. Armed with a team of dedicated volunteers, they registered the cooperative as a nonprofit in April 2020 and successfully lobbied the county to allocate $50,000 of the $3.3 million in federal CARES Act money granted to Belpre and Marietta last year toward their project.
Brown then convinced Spray, who was living in North Carolina, to come back to his native Ohio and become the cooperative’s network manager, engineer and designer.
After months of organization, negotiation with the tower’s owner, American Tower, and haggling over CARES dollars, Spray and Bailey’s husband dug a trench that connected the tower to a source of fiber-optic broadband, completing the wireless installation last week.
This hybrid model of broadband and wireless internet allows them to connect hundreds of families living among the county’s hills and valleys, who can become members of the cooperative for a one-time $5 fee, Brown said.
Cooperative members then choose the speed of their internet service. Packages start at $60 per month for 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 megabits per second for uploads, or 25/3 Mbps; $80 for 50/10 Mbps and $100 for 100/25 Mbps, the industry standard for high-speed internet.
The pricing, all of which is significantly cheaper and higher quality than the satellite and dial-up options currently marketed to Washington County residents, will be reviewed by and voted on by cooperative members at an annual meeting, Brown said.
While the cooperative has been a success, Booth said the process has been exhausting.
“The frustration has been hearing, ‘No, no, no,’ all the way from (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai’s office to Jon Husted’s office,” he said. “But in the administration’s defense, the co-op was new and we didn’t have any assets.”
Still, Booth hopes the cooperative will be able to leverage some of the $290 million DeWine and Husted have recommended the legislature allocate toward broadband expansion in the upcoming 2022-2023 budget.
Will Ohio legislature pass the broadband budget item?
Last summer, the Ohio House passed Senate Bill 13, a piece of legislation that would have set aside $20 million for an Ohio Broadband Residential Grant Program. After much anticipation, it failed to pass the state Senate during the last General Assembly.
“That bill languished,” current Senate President Matt Huffman said.
But lawmakers in both chambers — the majority of whom represent rural Ohioans – wanted to find a way to resurrect the program. They announced Senate Bill 8, which also would set aside $20 million toward a grant program. That bill passed the Senate last week. The House passed its own bill, House Bill 2, on Thursday. The two chambers will then have to negotiate the final legislation.
“We, of course, introduced this bill before the governor’s (budget) announcement,” Huffman said. “It was important we do this for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I believe broadband is the rural electrification issue of our day.”
While Huffman said he appreciates DeWine and Husted’s commitment to expanding access, he’s unsure where that $290 million is coming from. Is it part of the pool of federal, COVID-relief related dollars or would that investment come from general revenue funds?
“I think the best-case scenario from my standpoint is that the federal government says, ‘Here’s one-time federal coronavirus relief money, and to qualify for that you would have to build out a significant broadband infrastructure,'” Huffman said.
Husted explained that funding for the budgetary recommendations — a one-time, $250 million grant program and then $40 million in residential broadband expansion grants — are for separate purposes.
The grant program is built into the governor’s $1 billion COVID-relief plan and the additional $40 million was already set aside in the state budget for former House Bill 13, now Senate Bill 8.
Savings from previous budget cuts and increased federal funding for programs like Medicaid frees up state dollars to be spent on other issues like broadband, the lieutenant governor said.
“Look, this is supposed to be about economic recovery,” Husted said. “And if you want that to be an inclusive recovery that includes rural Ohio and some elements of urban Ohio, then you have to make these kinds of investments.”
Husted said he believes the investment should be made to entities that will service the most people with the best quality, whether that be telecommunications companies or cooperatives.
Huffman is committed to making a broadband-related investment, whether it’s through legislation or the budget, but said the state Senate needs more time to understand the finances.
“I think a lot of that depends on revenue and estimates for revenue,” he said. “Who's to say that the $250 million is the right number?”
Expansion would be a ‘godsend’
Brown, who hopes to expand the Southeast Ohio Broadband Cooperative to other towers in Washington County and nearby Noble County, said he sees opportunity for Appalachian Ohio in broadband expansion and urges lawmakers to pass the governor’s budget.
“That $250 million the governor is proposing would be a godsend,” he said. “I would ask them to understand how deep the need really is … and we’re not the only county and we’re not the only region that’s suffering.”
Brown said it breaks his heart to think about students who’ve been forced to drive to McDonald’s parking lots to find Wi-Fi so they can get an education or the folks he knows who have lost jobs because they can’t work from home.
“One of the most frustrating points is getting people to actually understand the problem,” Brown said. “When you’ve got someone in metro Columbus or D.C., the idea of not having internet in your house is foreign, so they can’t comprehend it.”
From a recovery standpoint, Husted said access to the internet is a 21st century utility, not just a luxury, and one that rural, Appalachian Ohioans need in order to lead more constructive, prosperous and meaningful lives.
“America is no longer a country where we’re guaranteed to be the world’s leader,” he said. “We have to compete, and we need everybody participating in the competition on behalf of our country.”
Céilí Doyle is a Report for America corps member and covers rural issues in Ohio for The Dispatch. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation at https://bit.ly/3fNsGaZ.