Internet costs, poor service keep southeast Ohioans offline

Story by Chris Abreu

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

“Last month, my Comcast bill was $249, you know, taking a tenth of my paycheck,” the East Liverpool resident said. “And the internet’s not that good. I keep losing it and every time I turn around I am calling them.”

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

“So I’m gonna have to leave it, I don’t have another 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.”

According to the U.S Census Bureau, between 2017 to 2021, about 28% of households in Ohio’s Columbiana County did not have an active broadband subscription. This means more than  11,500 households in Bunnell’s county were without internet access.

A similar problem exists across rural Appalachia in Ohio — and it is an expensive problem to fix.

“I think it (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 body, from children trying to intersect with school and do their work, parents trying to work from home, entrepreneurs who depend on the internet for so much of their business. The internet is their connection to life around them.”

Manchin said regions like Southeast Ohio present 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 is a very rugged, mountainous, and wooded area,” Manchin said. “The communities are more isolated and separated from each other rather than large urban cities.”

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

“We had lots of kids whose parents parked in the parking lot of McDonald’s during COVID,” in order to do their school work, said Terri Fetherolf, who leads the Department of Development in southeast Ohio’s Vinton County.

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

Ohio plans to fund broadband expansion

The Ohio government passed a $250 million spending package in 2022 and leveraged that money through the private sector, meaning they asked companies to add more money to the project. The spending package ended up doubling to $500 million.

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

“We’re about six months into a two-year process where this whole system has been built out,” said Husted in a December 2022 interview. “Part of the deal was that for the private sector, you’re going to get these government grants, but you gotta do it (expand internet range) in two years. You got to serve these customers or we are going to work with somebody else.”

Husted said they looked at other options that showed some success, like using existing telehealth pilots and radio towers to provide internet to certain areas, but this was quickly considered ineffective. While these options work, it is expensive and the state would need to build out new infrastructure to make an actual impact. Building internet infrastructure proved difficult; Husted said there are low numbers of people in the workforce who have the skills this work requires.

“One of the impediments that we’ve encountered is the lack of a workforce,” Husted said. “So think about it; if all of a sudden you’re going to build out all this new infrastructure, who’s going to do it?”

To remedy that issue, Husted said the Ohio government is working with universities like Youngstown State and Ohio State to train a high-speed internet workforce.

Some cities have turned to community broadband

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

“We certainly would consider the community broadband model, meaning locally owned and controlled internet networks, as being a good alternative, especially in rural areas which are typically the most expensive areas to build,” he said.

Fairlawn, a suburb of Akron with about 7,700 residents, gave a community broadband network a try back in 2015 with FairlawnGig, Ohio’s first municipal broadband network. Fairlawn Service Director Ernie Staten said it was needed because of the growing demand for better internet.

“At one point we did a community survey (before FairlawnGig), and 92% of the community said they do not like the internet that they have,” Staten said. FairlawnGig’s 2021 internal surveys showed 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 need to come together to make the most of it.

“Whether it’s the Department of Commerce, or the Department of Agriculture, or the Department of Energy; that we’re all going to have to work together to somehow not duplicate our efforts, but put our money together in such a way that it strengthens and allows us to do bigger projects for a bigger region,” Manchin said.

Affordability remains a problem

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

The per capita income in Columbiana County between 2017 and 2021 was $28,358, according to the U.S Census Bureau. If the average Columbiana County resident pays an amount similar to Bunnell’s $249 monthly bill, then internet service would cost them more than 10% of their income.

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

Residents often come into the Wellsville Carnegie Public Library in southern Columbiana County to access the internet, said Rachel Freed, the library’s youth services manager. Photo by Susan Kirkman Zake 2-25-23

“When we have adults come in here, usually the bulk of it is going to be resumes—either working on Indeed, working on their resume, printing out the resume if they already have it saved,” Freed said.

Visitors can also check out hotspots from the library for brief periods to provide home internet access, she said, the same way they would check out a book.

“We have a lot of families who basically use (those hotspots) as their internet if they homeschool, that’s their access to the internet,” Freed said. “We have other people that come in from out of town to visit elderly family so they can work from their parent’s house while they’re visiting here.”

Through all of this, people like Bunnell are still waiting on some type of relief in terms of broadband access. She said it feels like, as the price of the internet keeps increasing, she is left behind because she’s on a fixed income.

“Everybody else went up because all people are making more money, but not people that are stuck on a fixed income and I’m screwed,” Bunnell said. “I worked my whole life… I have a 401(k). They keep telling me, ‘well you can cash that in,’ and then I ask them, ‘Okay, that’ll do me for a year, maybe two years, and then what do I do? Do I just crawl in a hole and die?’”

Zachary Shepherd contributed reporting to this story.

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