COSHOCTON — It’s no secret that rural Ohio lags behind urban locations in major areas like economic development, educational advancement and health care integration. The answer to close that gap is obvious to many — expanding rural broadband.
The COVID-19 pandemic sharpened this realization as children and adults found themselves attending classes and working from home.
In Coshocton County, more than half the population found themselves without adequate internet access for a myriad of Zoom meetings and online coursework. Especially if multiple people were on the same home signal at once.
Coshocton County Commissioners said they could put nearly $7.2 million in pledged American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding into a variety of projects. However, they understood the biggest impact they could make for county residents was expanding rural broadband access. Commissioners in May 2021 committed $5 million to give internet access to approximately 20,000 citizens, with businesses also benefitting. A second phase of $1 million should connect about 5,000 more.\
Ohio Transparent Telecom (Ohio TT) of Zanesville was selected last September to facilitate the project. Commissioners were impressed with the firm’s aggressive timeline (project completion by spring 2023) and proven track record. Ohio TT preformed a pilot project with the Village of Somerset in Perry County that had people online within 30 days of starting. Ohio TT also has a profit sharing model with 70% of surplus net income annually returned to customers in the form of credits to accounts.
Eleven new towers will be placed throughout Coshocton County, with four more than 300 feet high at points in the northwestern, northeastern, southwestern and southeastern sections. These towers will be marketed to cellular providers for co-location to improve cell phone access in remote areas as well. Equipment will also be placed on 10 existing towers.
The first tower off of Ohio 83 in Millcreek Township went live Tuesday with beta testers coming on to gauge internet service and customer service. About 1,400 residents in the area will be able to log on by end of April. Towers reaching those in the areas of Warsaw, Nellie, Blissfield and New Castle should be working by the summer.
Ohio TT deployed equipment and went live with expanded broadband access on an existing tower in Millcreek Township of Coshocton County on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. It will give internet to about 1,400 residents.
A history of poor connectivity
The broadband issue is nothing new in rural Ohio dating back to the dawn of the worldwide web in the early 1990s.
Reid Consulting Group is working with the Ohio Mid-Eastern Governments Association and Connecting Appalachia on compiling rural broadband data, identifying issues and solutions to resolve.
Tom Reid, founder and president of Reid Consulting, compared rural internet issues to bad road maintenance. If you don’t maintain a road, in a few years potholes will be numerous. Let it go for 30 years and you have little more than a gravel path left.
“That’s where we are,” Reid said in comparison to rural broadband. “We’ve got copper cables installed under the communications act to bring telephone communications to these areas and they did a great job providing telephone services, but they’re 70 years old. They’re just too old.”
Reid is encouraged by new government interest and funding into broadband projects. The Ohio Department of Development recently announced $232 million in grant funding for 33 broadband expansion projects in 31 counties. Spectrum received a little more than $1 million to expand Spectrum Internet Gig Service to 1,245 households in Coshocton County.
While the end goal is to get fiber everywhere, Reid said, he applauded the Coshocton County project with Ohio TT, which he thinks will have long-term impact as at least another option for residents.
“As I reflected on that over time, it was a really great move,” Reid said. “Having a wireless overlay that will allow LTE and 5G in the future gives us a competitive foil. As we build fiber to homes, nobody else is going to build fiber to homes in that area, so having that second layer of wireless on top of it I think will turn out to be a visionary success for bringing competitive pressure to the area.”
Reid Consulting data shows 52% of Coshocton County without broadband access or below the federal minimum speed standards of 25 Mbps for upload and 3 Mbps for download. That’s 9,206 households with Ohio TT hoping to reach most of those.
Kyle Yoder of Ohio TT said the COVID-19 pandemic opened a lot of eyes as to what technology can do and how they can use it. He said his parents had no idea what Zoom was two years ago, but now they use it as a prime communication tool.
Rusty Dreher has been acting as the liaison between the county and Ohio TT. He said there are several companies offering broadband, satellite and Wi-Fi in the county, but nothing with the reliability and speed needed to work through the pandemic. He said the commissioners office received daily calls from residents and the three county school districts about what they could do to help.
The former dog warden is also chief of the Coshocton Fire Department and a part-time deputy with the Coshocton County Sheriff’s Office. As a first responder, he knows the new technology can be a huge benefit. All county cruisers are equipped with laptops and fire personnel use GPS to pinpoint calls.
He also knows businesses have been anxious for this project to roll out.
“They use it so much now, whether that be paying bills, taking customers or ordering,” Dreher said. “It’s huge for economic development in the business world.”
The first beta tester drawing from the Millcreek tower was Daugherty Farm on County Road 12 in Fresno. The six generation family farm has about 250 dairy cows and 1,600 acres. It went to robotic milking more than two years ago. Online access allows the Daugherty family to make changes in milking schedules and other aspects of operation. It also allows technicians to check equipment remotely if there’s an issue.
Bill Daugherty said as data was used in a given month, the ability to access it and make needed changes took longer and longer.
“When it slows down, it really slows down, because we’re only allotted so much data,” Daugherty said. “It looks like this situation will afford us tremendous amounts of more data and be a whole lot faster. It looks like it’s going to be a really good fit.”
Bill Daugherty talks about the robotic equipment used to milk cows on Daugherty Farm in Fresno. Thanks to the broadband connection provided by an Ohio TT tower Daugherty can send data to technicians, nutritionists, and his own cell phone to track production and animal welfare.
Commissioner Dane Shryock said he knows of a business in Bakersville, in the northeast corner of the county, that carries two internet packages. If one slows down or goes offline, they switch to the other. This will help them and others, especially as technology continues to grow for farming purposes.
“For an agriculture community, we used to not think about technology like that,” Shryock said.
Commissioner Gary Fischer said he’s stopped all the time by people asking if the broadband will be in their area. Fischer last spearheaded a broadband drive about 12 years ago with some still running on that old technology. The big differences between then and now, he said, was more money for development and improved technology with faster speeds and deployment times.
“The excitement is warranted, because we’ve been looking for this progress for a long time. The digital divide might be coming do a screeching halt,” Fischer said.