Internet costs and poor service keep southeastern Ohioans offline

Betsy Bunnell is on the verge of giving up her internet connection after months of struggling with her service.

Last month, my Comcast bill was $249, you know, taking a tenth of my salary, said the East Liverpool resident. And the internet is not that good. I keep losing it and every time I turn around I call them.

While Bunnell’s bill also includes cable and phone, typically, in this area of ​​Ohio, Internet-only service can cost around $100 a month, if it’s available.

The cost and poor service she said she received left her with no choice but to drop the service, meaning that not only will she have a much harder time reaching her grandchildren who are spread across multiple states, but she will also face difficulties in his daily life.

So I’ll have to leave it, I have no other choice, Bunnell said, and I don’t know what I’m going to do without the internet because I can’t get around anymore. If I don’t have my cane, I can’t even go to the new TJ Maxx store because they don’t have wheelchairs.

Between 2017 and 2021, approximately 28% of households in Ohio’s Columbiana County did not have an active broadband subscription, according to the US Census Bureau. That meant more than 11,500 households in Bunnells County were without Internet access.

A similar problem exists in rural Ohio Appalachia, and it’s a costly problem to fix.

I think[Internet access]has become such an intimate part of our lives, said Gayle Manchin, federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. It’s almost like an extension of our own body, from kids trying to intersect with school and doing their jobs, parents trying to work from home, entrepreneurs who depend on the internet for much of their business. The internet is their connection to the life around them.

Manchin said regions like southeastern Ohio pose a challenge to installing broadband due to the hilly and rural terrain.

The first problem is that not only is it a rural area, but it’s also very rugged, mountainous and forested, Manchin said. Communities are more isolated and separated from each other than large urban cities.

Residents who don’t have internet at home are having to turn to restaurants and libraries to access it.

We’ve had a lot of kids whose parents have parked in the McDonalds parking lot during COVID, to do their school work, said Terri Fetherolf, who leads the Department of Development in Vinton County in southeastern Ohio.

According to the Ohio Department of Development, only 20 percent of Vinton County households have access to the Federal Communications Commission’s minimum 25Mb upload and 3Mb download speeds for broadband, according to the Ohio Department of Development. Ohio.

Ohio plans to fund broadband expansion

The Ohio government has approved a $250 million spending package in 2022 and has leveraged that money through the private sector, which means it has asked companies to add more money to the project. The spending package ended up doubling to $500 million.

According to Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted, all of that money will go towards a broadband expansion plan in Ohio. Since the Internet is a service provided by private companies, he said the government’s plan is to provide monetary incentives to Internet companies to extend their coverage to people in need.

It’s been about six months into a two-year process in which the entire system is built, Husted said in a December 2022 interview. Part of the deal was that for the private sector you’ll get these government grants, but you have to do it (expand the reach of the internet) in two years. You have to serve these customers or we’ll work with someone else.

Husted said he had looked into other options that have shown some success, such as using existing telehealth pilots and radio towers to deliver internet to certain areas, but this was quickly deemed ineffective. While these options work, they are expensive, and the state would need to build new infrastructure to have any real impact. Building an Internet infrastructure proved difficult; Husted said there are a low number of people in the workforce who have the skills this job requires.

One of the obstacles we’ve encountered is a lack of manpower, Husted said. So think about it; if you’re suddenly going to build all this new infrastructure, who’s going to do it?

To remedy this problem, Husted said the Ohio government is working with universities such as Youngstown State and Ohio State to train a high-speed Internet workforce.

Some cities have turned to community broadband

Community broadband networks may be a better option, said Sean Gonsalves, a senior reporter at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

We would certainly view the community broadband model — locally owned and controlled Internet networks — as a good alternative, especially in rural areas which are typically the most expensive areas to build, he said.

Fairlawn, an Akron suburb of about 7,700 residents, trialled a community broadband network in 2015 with FairlawnGig, Ohio’s first municipal broadband network. Fairlawn service director Ernie Staten said it was needed due to the growing demand for better internet.

We did a community survey at one point (before FairlawnGig) and 92 percent of the community said they didn’t like the internet they have, Staten said. FairlawnGigs 2021 internal surveys showed that 96% of respondents were very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with FairlawnGig.

Manchin said the federal government provides money to agencies, including the Appalachian Regional Commission, that can fund broadband infrastructure. But they must come together to make the most of it.

Whether it’s the Department of Commerce, the Department of Agriculture or the Department of Energy; that they should all work together not to somehow duplicate our efforts, but to pool our money in such a way as to strengthen ourselves and allow us to do bigger projects for a bigger region, Manchin said.

Accessibility remains an issue

The goal of the Ohio government’s plan is not only to extend Internet service to these communities, but also to ensure that Internet access is affordable.

Per capita income in Columbiana County between 2017 and 2021 was $28,358, according to the US Census Bureau. If the average Columbiana County resident paid a similar amount to Bunnell’s $249 monthly utility bill, their Internet service would cost them more than 10% of their income.

Residents often walk into the Wellsville Carnegie Public Library in southern Columbiana County to access the Internet, said Rachel Freed, the library’s youth services manager.


Susan Kirkman Zake


News Lab

Residents often walk into the Wellsville Carnegie Public Library in southern Columbiana County to access the Internet, said Rachel Freed, the library’s youth services manager.

When we have adults coming in here, usually most will be resumes or work on Indeed, work on their resume, print the resume if they’ve already saved it, Freed said.

Visitors can also check library hotspots for short periods to provide home Internet access, he said, in the same way they check a book.

We have a lot of families that basically use (those hotspots) like the internet if they’re homeschooling, that’s their internet access, Freed said. We have other folks coming from out of town to visit elderly family so they can work from their parents home while they are visiting here.

Despite all of this, people like Bunnell are still waiting for some kind of relief in terms of broadband access. She said that it seems that as the price of the Internet continues to rise, she has lagged behind because she has a fixed income.

Everyone else went up because all the people are making more, but not people who are stuck on a fixed income and I’m screwed, Bunnell said. I’ve worked all my life I have a 401(k). They keep telling me, well, you can cash it, and then I ask them, okay, that’ll be enough for me for a year, maybe two years, and then what do I do? Do I crawl into a hole and die?

Zachary Shepherd helped report this story.

This story was originally published by the Kent State NewsLab, a collaborative newsroom made up of Kent State students.

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