OSU report focuses on ways to expand, enhance rural access to broadband internet in Ohio

Ohio’s Country Journal, May 25

The 2022 analysis, Finding the Missing Dots: An Update on Ohio Broadband Policy, is 53 pages and is available to download for free at go.osu.edu/missingdots 
While most Ohioans have access to broadband internet, nearly 1 million still lack access to the fast, reliable broadband services in their homes, said analysts with the C. William Swank Program in Rural-Urban Policy at The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).

“This unserved population largely lives in less populated rural regions of the state where it is prohibitively expensive for internet service providers to extend service,” said Mark Partridge, chair and professor in the CFAES Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics. The Swank program, housed in the department, conducts research, teaching, and outreach within the college.

An April report released by researchers with the Swank program says there is a strong economic benefit for Ohio to invest in expanding and enhancing broadband coverage to unserved areas, as well as making the service more affordable and ensuring that users have access to adequate devices to use the internet for their needs.

Broadband internet services are those that meet the Federal Communications Commission’s current minimum speeds of 25 megabits per second for downloading and 3 megabits per second for uploading. But those definitions of “high speed” are woefully out of date and need to be updated by the government, Partridge said.

“When comparing Ohio—in which 12% of the population lacks broadband access—to its neighbors, there are considerable differences,” he said. “For example, over 50% of West Virginians lack access to broadband service versus only 6.5% of New Yorkers, though West Virginia is uniformly inhibited by difficult terrain.”

Partridge said Ohio’s relative performance is middling, with some states achieving higher broadband penetration, such as Illinois with 90.3% and New York at 93.5%, while other states fare considerably worse than Ohio, such as West Virginia at 49.8% and Kentucky at 81.4%.

“The last few years saw rapid transformation of broadband use throughout America with almost every aspect of life now wholly reliant on digital technology,” Partridge said. “Streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu have increased their prevalence in our everyday lives, while telehealth and telework options have exploded, with the former now being a viable option for rural communities’ void of healthcare providers and the latter permeating almost every industry.

“And the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the issue, as accelerated demands for high-speed internet as lockdowns in the spring of 2020 forced tens of millions of students to learn virtually, and a large fraction of the U.S. labor force to work remotely.”

This as the federal government this month announced a major partnership with 20 internet providers to increase their internet speeds or cut the price of their services for income-eligible households nationwide. The move is part of the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program, finalized in November 2021, which provides a monthly subsidy to cover the cost some consumers pay for internet service.

The Swank report says that further bridging the digital divide and extending and enhancing access to underserved areas of Ohio will likely require:

  • Revising the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of broadband from the current 25 megabits per second for downloading and 3 megabits per second for uploading to 100 megabits per second for uploading and 10 megabits per second for downloading. The current speed does not reflect the required speeds for proper usage, and required speeds are likely to increase with technological change and new applications.
  • Policymakers to not only consider the physical infrastructure necessary for high speeds, such as fiber-optic cables that deliver broadband, but also improve competition, reduce prices, and enhance quality by increasing the number of internet service providers for the public—especially in currently underserved areas.
  • More competition, and, in some cases, local communities starting their own broadband provider if private markets are unable to provide necessary competition.
  • Pairing broadband investments with other workforce training programs that raise skill levels in lagging regions and investments, and the use of federal and state funds for providing adequate devices for internet usage, including in school districts with large shares of students without at-home high-speed internet access.
  • Increased emphasis in providing adequate devices such as laptops and tablets to access the internet. Even if one has access to affordable broadband, if they are using only a smartphone, they are unable to participate in many activities such as joint, online projects or in taking online classes such as chemistry.
  • Increased emphasis on affordability versus access, given that 18% of households nationwide still don’t have any access, leaving a large share of the population out of modern society and the modern workplace.