Congressman, local leaders discuss broadband

CHESTER — Chester Courthouse was the venue for a roundtable on Tuesday to discuss broadband internet in Appalachia, specifically Meigs and Vinton Counties.

Meigs Economic Development hosted Congressman Bill Johnson (R-Marietta), who led the group that included State Representative Jay Edwards (R-Nelsonville), Vinton County Economic Development representatives, local business owners, and communication providers. Johnson sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee, as well as the Committee on the Budget in the United States House of Representatives.

“There are huge broadband issues in Appalachia,” Johnson said. “There is a rural and urban divide that continues to grow as a result, and I think this is a very important topic.”

Johnson stressed that people are leaving the area, in part due to the lack of broadband infrastructure, which is an economic driver that allows business to communicate. He went on to say “our nation is suffering as a result of the rural/urban technology divide that does not allow participation in the education and career development in rural areas that is available in urban settings.”

Connect Ohio Executive Director Stu Johnson provided the group with highlights of a 65 page Broadband Assessment completed for Meigs and Vinton counties.

Connect Ohio is a subsidiary of Connected Nation, a non-profit group whose successful effort to map Kentucky’s internet infrastructure helped that state’s efforts to expand broadband service to rural or otherwise underserved areas.

The non-profit gathered data for the assessment from residents in an attempt to identify obstacles to broadband expansion and issues with current infrastructure.

“Data is revealing to communities,” Stu Johnson explained. “Our research provided insight into the challenges and needs of communities, allowing us to develop an Action Plan and making funding for the project easier to obtain.”

The survey found that 80 percent of respondents with service said the speed was too slow and 61 percent thought it was unreliable. Two main barriers to broadband adoption among various groups were that it was either not available or too expensive.

Fifteen townships were identified as areas with service gaps, including Columbia, Salem, Bedford, Lebanon and Letart Townships in Meigs.

Stu Johnson said “our assessment revealed many challenges to reducing the digital divide across both counties” such as digital literacy.

“A low broadband adoption rate (less than 53 percent) and high dissatisfaction with available service highlight the need for better broadband solutions,” he said.

The Action Plan includes the development of public-private partnerships and a push for digital equity which is the promotion of low cost broadband service for vulnerable populations.

“It is easier to upgrade existing broadband connections than to provide additional coverage for rural areas. The density of the population isn’t going to change soon, so we need to determine ways to provide fundamental broadband service to underserved areas,” he concluded.

Congressman Johnson said that Tuesday’s roundtable was the beginning of the discussion of this complex issue, and that with multiple barriers to access there are no easy or quick answers.

Several participants, including the Congressman, stressed the need for residents to understand what technology in their homes can do for them.

Meigs Local Technology Coordinator Matt Simpson told the group he has seen improvement in broadband availability in the district, but obstacles for students still exist at home.

“The adoption rate is growing,” Simpson said, and “teachers are encouraging ‘blended learning,’” strategies, which require internet access. “Since not all students have access (or computers) at home, it makes it difficult to implement.”

Vinton Director of Development Terri Fetherolf also weighed in, and added that like Meigs, some parts of Vinton County are extremely underserved.

“Why can’t there be a program similar to the Rural Electrification Act that brought electricity to rural areas,” she said. “We need help expanding broadband coverage to our underserved areas.”

Speaking after the discussion, Economic Development Director Perry Varnadoe said the positive turnout for the event showed that Meigs residents are interested in the availability of broadband services.

“I was glad to see more support for providers to bring affordable, fast service throughout the county,” Varnadoe said.

Congressman Johnson wrapped the discussion and reiterated that a public/private endeavor would be necessary to achieve broadband equity in the state.

He enumerated several government agencies that provide assistance toward this goal but reminded everyone “that the national debt continues to increase and somebody always pays the bill, there are no ‘free lunches.’ So we need to be creative and to form a public/private partnership to accomplish the goal of broadband access for all Ohio residents.”

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Congressman Bill Johnson took part in a roundtable discussion on Tuesday morning on broadband service in Meigs and Vinton counties. Bill Johnson took part in a roundtable discussion on Tuesday morning on broadband service in Meigs and Vinton counties.

By Lorna Hart

Special to the Sentinel

Lorna Hart is a freelance writer for The Daily Sentinel.