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The Digital Divide Hits Home

November 17, 2016 | Youngstown Business Journal | By Dan O'Brien

While teaching young people the fundamentals of computer technology is essential, the greater challenge is bringing that internet connection into the home. And, the discussion has shifted to what should be considered adequate broadband service because more information and services flow across fiber lines than ever before.

“It used to be real easy defining ‘digital divide,’” says Stu Johnson, executive director of Connect Ohio, a nonprofit organization that advocates programs to encourage internet connectivity and adoption throughout the Buckeye State. Several years ago, the benchmark for adequate broadband speed was about three megabytes per second. But last year, the Federal Communications Commission recommended that service should be measured at download speeds of 25 megabytes per second.

About 98% of Ohio is covered with download speeds of at least 1.5 megabytes, including mobile, Johnson says. “Still, 2% of 11 million people is a lot,” he notes. And, when you take mobile broadband out of the equation, the percentage drops to about 90%.

Further, higher-speed service is much harder to come by, especially in the more rural communities, Johnson says. In Columbiana County, for example, the number of households without internet speed of at least 10 megabytes per second is larger in the far southwestern portion of the county compared to cities, although ample mobile broadband service is available. In some of the more remote areas of the state – especially in Appalachia – there’s little or no availability for broadband, largely because the demand and degree of use doesn’t justify running fiber connectivity to these areas.

“For rural areas, the barrier is access,” Johnson says. “For urban areas, it’s cost.” Although broadband service is available in all urban centers of the state, it’s not unusual to find adoption rates – that is, the number of households paying for adequate broadband coverage – at roughly half. “The access is there, but many people don’t have $40 a month to pay for it.”

Stepping up connectivity in some of the more economically distressed regions of the state is also imperative, because attracting new economic development projects and job opportunities today almost certainly depend on whether a community has access to this service.

“Before any company comes to the table, they’ve already checked out broadband access and the level of the skilled workforce,” Johnson says. While there’s no guarantee that a company will select a site because it has strong broadband service, it’s almost certain that a company will pass it by if a community lacks access.

“The question is, should we intervene?” and supply this service to the underrepresented areas, Johnson posits. The solution, he adds, would most likely be a public-private partnership and a program “that makes sense for everyone,” meaning both providers and consumers.

As such, Connect Ohio is soliciting proposals for a program it will select in five cities of the state and then develop a comprehensive plan to improve internet access and use, says Paul Carlson, a former administrator for the city of Columbus who is helping Youngstown put together its proposal. “My interest is to develop a strategic plan for broadband,” he says.

Carlson, instrumental in the campaign to elect Columbus the No. 1 “Smart City” in the world in 2015, is working closely with the Oak Hill Collaborative and other organizations to help prepare the Youngstown proposal, says Oak Hill’s Kerrigan.

“We’re confident we’ll be selected,” Kerrigan says. “We’ve demonstrated the need.”

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