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2020 Digital Census Poses Challenge for Rural Communities

Ohio estimates just under 9 percent of its population has no access to broadband Internet, and despite throwing dollars at the problem, rural, older and lower-income Americans still face high costs to cross the digital divide.

(TNS) — The 2020 Census is going digital.

Altogether, it’s a cheaper option. Setting up a website and sending out mailers will ultimately save taxpayer dollars, but going digital may have its own price.

“We’re going to struggle for the people who don’t have the internet or don’t have a computer,” said Sophie Fisher, a local complete Census committee member. “We have people who spent their whole life doing it one way.”

While the federal agency has plans to ensure such populations still find a paper questionnaire to fill out — many Lima, Ohio, residents, for example, may not even notice the move to digital — such a change highlights the pervasiveness of digital technology. Smartphones have now proliferated into the hands of both the young and old, and most homes are now equipped with a computer.

But not everyone lives a digital life.

In a report released this past September, the state of Ohio estimated just under 9% of the state population has no access to broadband-speed internet. Despite throwing dollars at the problem, rural, older and lower-income Americans still face high costs to cross the digital divide.

Price points and internet access

Like electricity before it, broadband access has been slower to catch on in rural America due to one major problem: It costs more.

Laying fiber lines and setting up related infrastructure requires funds. With lower densities of people carrying the bills in rural areas, the federal government and private corporations have stepped up to try to lower the costs for rural residents.

For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture pledged $600 million in loans and grants to building broadband infrastructure in rural areas. Through its Connect America Fund program, the Federal Communications Commission has committed $1.49 billion over 10 years to upgrade networks across the United States.

“You put a mile in fiber in and serve one residential customer, that’s the biggest challenge,” said Lonnie Pendersen, chief operations officer of Wapakoneta’s Telephone Service Company. “When you get out in rural areas, you just don’t have the number of customers.”

Watch Communications, based out of Benton Ridge, is set to receive $1.3 million from the FCC program to expand rural access throughout under-served areas in Allen, Auglaize, Mercer and Van Wert counties. An additional $3.9 million was allocated to the company to expand access throughout Indiana and Illinois. Similarly, TSC has also received federal dollars to lay fiber lines to offset the $40,000 cost to lay a mile of line.

On the private front, telecommunication companies are investing billions to keep Ohio up to date.

AT&T estimates its investment in Ohio alone from 2016 and 2018 comes in at $1.5 billion. Cincinnati Bell also invested $1 billion since 2010 to create a hyper-connected greater Cincinnati region.

Ohio’s state government is also exploring ways to encourage even more private investment with a potential grant program through a joint exploration led by the Ohio Department of Transportation and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted’s InnovateOhio office.

Even with the support, companies like Watch Communications are relying on cheaper technological innovations that are better suited to spreading signal over a larger area at a reduced cost.

“There’s been multiple failures in this space,” said Frank Glaszner, Watch’s vice president of sales and marketing,” simply because people had a great idea, and they ran out of funding.”

Specifically, Watch Communications uses Microsoft’s “airband” technology to shoot data through the broadcast spectrum once devoted to television reception. Such infrastructure relies on running lines out to some sort of tall structure, such as a water tower, antenna or grain elevator and then sending the information outward through a point-to-point system. If line of sight is obstructed, the service doesn’t work, but Glaszner said the propagation pattern can be expanded by placing smaller cells in other areas to bounce the signal to where it needs to go.

Microsoft estimates that such a technology can reduce the cost of bringing broadband Internet access to rural areas by 80% when compared to laying the much faster, yet expensive, fiber-optic lines.

Costs to the user

With such high costs to install infrastructure, consumers also bear a higher burden. Those costs conflate the added difficulty of making sure the use of digital technologies results in savings for rural businesses.

Clint Schroeder, the agriculture and natural resources educator with the Allen County’s OSU extension office, has seen some farmers hold off incorporating digital technology for that reason, despite many farmers having solid connectivity through the region’s strong 4G network.

“It’s cost prohibitive for some to jump on board to go this route,” Schroeder said. “As agriculture continues to change, it’s going to be the way forward. If you’re going to operate essentially a multi-million dollar business, you’re going to be using it.”

Farmers often rely on digital technology to actively check up on their operations, which eliminates the need for time-consuming check-ins. Record-keeping has also been streamlined, Schroeder said, and tech-heavy operations can easily check, track and forecast the many variables, such as yields, prices and weather patterns, that determine a farmer’s profit.

“What helps the most is the efficiency,” Schroeder said. “The other week, I was combining corn in one of my fields and had a breakdown. Through an iPad, I went through the manufacturer’s website, figured out the parts diagram, ordered it online and found the closest dealer that had it in stock so I could drive there and pick it up.”

Another example of technological investment costs is the City of Lima’s Smart City initiative. Ultimately, city officials expect efficiencies and cost-savings to arise from the major project to streamline operations and bring together its siloed systems, but the effort will end up costing the city millions of dollars before such efficiencies are in place.

The cost of digital literacy

Dani Hollar, the Lima Public Library’s head of reference services, has seen plenty of people coming in to use the 21 public computers sitting in the library. Some are taking advantage of the library’s Internet access if they don’t have access at home. Others are actively learning how to use a computer with little to no knowledge of how they work.

While the infrastructure and consumer costs hold back many rural and lower-income residents from crossing the digital divide, digital literacy can also be a major limitation for those without technological backgrounds.

The library offers plenty of resources to help such individuals get a start, Hollar said. From online tutorials to classroom lessons hosted by Google, the library has been a major proponent of digital literacy since computers first started to become a major part of daily life.

“One of the primary issues that we run into with someone who hasn’t used a computer before is the hand-eye coordination needed to use a mouse,” Hollar said. “It takes a little while to pick up that skill.”

Digital literacy also requires the acknowledgment that digital tools can be a positive in the first place, which can be a hard line to cross for some, especially those who have lived decades without needing them in the first place.

Sharon Lee, 71, expressed her reluctance simply: “I hate change.”

Lee owns a smartphone, which she calls her “Obama phone,” but she relies more on her flip phone to place calls and text family and friends because she isn’t sure how to work the smartphone.

“I can’t answer it,“ Lee said. “I get stressed about it, so it isn’t worth it.”

Out of the seniors who use Allen County Council on Aging services, Program Director Lorrain Lovett estimated about four would qualify as tech savvy.

That doesn’t mean all seniors have reservations, however.

Esther Golden, 88, said she primarily relies on her daughter for any tech-related needs, but she does use her iPhone to call her children and look up information online, such as phone numbers to businesses or directions to certain places.

Linny Fleming, 75, owns the whole set of tech products — tablet, computer, smartphone — as well as a smartwatch. She uses the device to monitor her heart and other biological indicators and likes that the smartwatch checks to see if she might have fallen when the watch detects such motion. She said she primarily uses the Internet to pay bills, post on social media, talk to family and friends and look up information online.

The same type of use can be found among many of the seniors who hang out at the Senior Services Center.

Executive Director Betsy Winget said it’s pretty much expected that most younger seniors have a smartphone and have high digital literacy, especially if they raised children during the years digital technology grew in popularity.

Getting on board

The digital trend won’t be going away anytime soon, and those areas that fail to jump on board are going to have a hard time keeping up. For rural areas, that means a need for more dollars.

Until then, the 2020 Census will have to have a backup plan before it goes 100% digital.

In press documents explaining the count process, the U.S. Census Bureau is making some paper exceptions for rural and expected low-response areas. Households with low internet connectivity or “other characteristics that make it less likely the respondents will complete the Census questionnaire online” will be sent paper questionnaires by mail. Paper questionnaires will also be included in the fourth mailing residents receive if they don’t fill out the seven-question digital survey.

If all else fails, the local bureau will decide to use the most costly option to taxpayers, sending out a Census worker.

©2019 The Lima News (Lima, Ohio). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.