The Digital Divide: Broadband Internet Access in Rural Ohio

For many Ohioans, high speed internet access is considered a basic necessity. Required to complete daily tasks and remain connected to society at large, internet access has become a divider between the have and the have nots. Internet access is the portal through which we connect to the modern economy. With roughly one-third of rural Ohioans living without high speed internet access in their homes, this has become a priority issue for statewide leaders, utility companies, and even technology giants.

The Department of Rural-Urban Policy at The Ohio State University estimates nearly 1 million Ohioans are without access to high speed internet. These Ohioans typically live in rural areas, where it is particularly costly for internet service providers to extend their services. While extending service into these rural communities is costly up front, researchers at the Swank Program out of Ohio State predict investments in internet access will have long term economic benefits. The average consumer’s monetary benefit from broadband access ranges anywhere from $1,500 to $2,200 annually.

Representative Ryan Smith (R-Bidwell) and Representative Jack Cera (D-Bellaire) introduced legislation in 2018 aimed at expanding internet access into rural communities across Ohio. Representatives Cera and Smith found individuals without internet access experience hardships in multiple facets of their life ranging from health care to education to employment. In order to achieve a level economic playing field between rural and urban communities, internet access must be universal. The bill proposes $50 million in grants to businesses, nonprofits, and internet cooperatives committed to expanding broadband coverage across Ohio. Due to the private nature of high speed internet infrastructure, companies like Spectrum and AT&T control which homes have access, and which do not. Investing in rural communities does not benefit these companies, so legislators are hoping to fill the investment gap in rural communities through grants.

In efforts to bridge the digital divide, American Electric Power (AEP), hopes to use statewide grid modernization efforts to put meters in rural parts of Ohio. AEP is offering third party providers the ability to utilize their networks in hopes of making internet access available in rural communities. In return, third party providers help alleviate some of the costs associated with rural expansion. In early July, Microsoft announced a partnership with Ohio-based Watch Communications in an effort to provide reliable internet access to 815,000 Ohioans. The project stems from Microsoft’s Airband Initiative which has been implemented across the country, bringing internet to unserved areas. Lt. Governor Jon Husted, a longtime advocate of using technology to amend public issues, applauded the technology giant, emphasizing the importance of private-sector companies stepping up to create solutions. Lt. Governor Husted is committed to internet expansion efforts, using his platform and InnovateOhio to leverage support and funds from private entities across the state.