NEW LEXINGTON — On June 18, community leaders and representatives took time during the evening to discuss and address the scarcity of basic internet broadband, which not only affects Perry County, but most of the southeastern rural expanse.
The virtual town hall began at approximately 6 p.m. with upwards of over 40 individuals waiting for the live stream to begin. Welcoming the virtual audience was Director Wendy Tarr of the Vincentian Ohio Action Network.
“We are an organization that has a number of member groups called Think Tanks on Poverty,” Tarr explained. “We have been engaged with the Perry County Think Tank on Poverty to address issues impacting that area.”
Tarr added that one of the most highly discussed and covered topics in the county has been the lack of adequate internet access. The issue has been known to affect individuals of all ages and demographics.
“This has been a challenge that has been impacting this part of the state, in Appalachia and parts of Ohio,” Tarr stated.
The web-based town hall lasted until 8 p.m. with various different guest speakers commenting on the current lack of internet infrastructure. Along with speakers explaining the current situation, viewers and listeners were able to ask questions and make general comments via the Facebook live stream and other services.
The full virtual town hall can be experienced by visiting the Perry County Think Tank on Poverty Facebook Page with the video titled Rural Broadband Town Hall.
One of the first people to be introduced was former mayor of the Village of Crooksville, Fred Redfern, who has been working with the local Think Tank as a district team member.
“I began learning more about broadband in 2000 when the 911 [Technical Advisory Committee or TAC] as a fire department representative,” Redfern through video conferencing. “Broadband came up in our communications… systems that we were trying to upgrade.”
Redfern continued stating that over the years, the advancement of technology was moving faster in the communication sector of the county. Since then, the county’s 911 TAC committee has tried to stay on top of communications; however, broadband still was a hindrance, according to the former mayor.
“In 2018, I joined the [Perry County Think Tank on Poverty] as the Mayor of the Village of Crooksville, and I wanted to just find out what is going on in our county and what some of the needs were beyond Crooskville,” Redfern commented. “That’s when the topic of broadband picked up some momentum for me.”
Since Redfern’s accompaniment, the group has attempted to keep broadband one of the primary focuses in the area and region. The group has also been advocating for the census, which includes an online answering element that few have access to.
Tarr thanked the former mayor leading into the group of virtual panelists. First to be welcomed was Peter Voderburg, Chief of BroadbandOhio, a newly formed state government office.
“Good evening everyone, I am chief of BroadbandOhio, which is a new division within the developmental service agency,” Voderburg stated.
According to a statehouse press release published on March 5, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced the creation of BroadbandOhio. The office’s main focus is to improve access to high speed internet across the state.
Along with the announcement of the new office, Voderberg was also announced as the agency’s new chief. He has worked with the state government for years having experience in both the Ohio House and Senate.
In his opening remarks, Voderberg talked about how different industries, such as agriculture and schools, use broadband to help improve the living situation and day-to-day operations. He also talked about how his office is attempting to address the issue.
“People are relying on their cell phone screens to do homework, check email and schedule appointments and in some cases people are just going without,” Voderberg commented. “To solve this problem, the DeWine administration has been taking deliberate steps to understand the broadband landscape in Ohio.”
The BroadbandOhio Chief added there are a number of areas in the southeast region of the state that do not have access to basic Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) definition of broadband, which is 25 megabits per second download speed and three megabits per second upload speed. He also acknowledged that some urban and suburban areas do not have access to the FCC’s definition of broadband internet in the state.
Voderberg also stated that Perry County is one of the top 10 counties in the state that lacks basic broadband with 59 percent of the populous in Perry County having access.
Voderberg stated that his office is working on a grant program with the Ohio legislature. One of the most recent bills to pass in the House, on June 11, included a pilot program which would allow AEP to “facilitate the deployment of broadband” of which Perry County was one of the selected locations for the program. Voderberg listed several other proposed ideas and projects the state is working on to address the internet scarcity.
After Voderberg wrapped up his time, Tarr welcomed Misty Crosby, executive director of the Buckeye Hills Regional Council. The eight-county regional council of government helps assist other groups with projects as well as addressing problems.
“As you all have been learning, broadband touches each one the council helps with from telemedicine to education, you need broadband access and the pandemic has really highlighted that need in rural Southeast Ohio.”
For the last two years, Crosby stated that the council has been conducting a research project in the eight-county region, funded in part by the Federal Appalachian Regional Commission. The project was created to identify areas in the region where broadband lacked or was non-existent.
“What we learned was that the availability of broadband in rural areas of our region and Appalachia Ohio and throughout the country is greatly overstated,” Crosby explained. “There is a much higher percentage of folks out there that do not have broadband access.”
She added that the current copper wire infrastructure currently installed throughout the county is “beyond its end of life and really needs to be replaced,” commenting the copper wires are more than 50 years old. Some of the copper infrastructure is no longer suitable for telephone calls, according to Crosby.
Crosby discussed and described more about how the county can move forward to a brighter future for broadband as several areas need to be addressed. After she concluded, Tom Reid, president of Reid Consulting, was introduced.
Last year in mid December, Reid presented information regarding the real, current state of internet access in the region. He reiterated some of the downfalls of having limited access from the study he presented.
Reid showed visual representations of how individuals needing access would have to visit establishments such as public libraries and other places providing public internet. With the pandemic closing most non-essential areas of congregation, individuals were left in the dark as resources became limited.
“Of course, when places were shut down because of the pandemic, that option wasn’t even available,” Reid said.
Reid stated that during the project, he requested public information from the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. From that, he discovered that for two months, October and November of 2019, Frontier had roughly 430 pages of complaints filed.
“And the other telephone companies were not that far behind,” Reid commented. “What we are really seeing is that telephone companies are basically abandoning the regions, abandoning the copper and its greeting these hype life-safety risks.”
Reid added that part of the reason service companies do not provide internet in the region in part has to do with population density. More often, companies opt to provide services to places such as Columbus where there is a heavy population.
“You get down to some of our more remote areas like Monroe Township and Perry County, you are dealing with 12 households per square mile,” Reid stated. “For a broadband provider, there’s no way they can build a case to survey the area in the absence of a subsidy.”
One of the questions asked during the town hall examined if the state could declare the internet as a public utility such as water, electricity and telephone.
“I think it would make a lot of sense to make it a public utility,” Reid responded.
After some brief discussion between Reid and Voderberg, New Lexington City Schools Superintendent Casey Coffey spoke from the perspective of educators working in the county.
In his initial remarks, Coffey revisited how the state suddenly closed all schools due to growing concerns of COVID-19. When schools were shut down, some schools throughout the state utilized video services for continuing education. However, strategies such as these were challenging for Perry County schools.
“Life changed in March,” Coffey commented. “It was very immediate — what was normalcy to our kids became an abrupt change.”
From his perspective, he believes all kids should have all resources available to them. However, the demand for broadband is needed now more than ever.
“We experienced a lot of different things,” Coffey explained. “We experienced a lack of access — challenges with different devices, what devices were compatible.”
Coffey added that his district discovered disturbing statistics reporting that over 50 percent of the students were unable to log onto school resources during the state-ordered closures.
“We estimated that over 50 percent of our population in New Lexington didn’t have access,” Coffey explained.
He added that the district lacked equipment, access, and a lack of funds. The district is 100 percent free and reduced lunch, as other schools in the state and county are. The lack of funds limits the district’s ability to purchase internet for its student population.
“We’ve been living these challenges,” Coffey stated. “The governor praised the inner city schools. He came on and said, ‘I think it’s just great that Hilliard City schools has been able to access the online curriculum.’ We put assignments in envelopes and mailed them out, we put food on buses — we made home visits.”