Through a request for information (RFI), Ohio was able to confirm major opportunities and challenges as it aims to give all of its residents and businesses the chance to gain broadband access.
Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted wasn’t surprised when an Ohio Department of Transportation report, released in late September, indicated that his state has valuable assets that can lead to broadband expansion.
“Actually, it largely confirmed what we believed,” Husted said. “That the public infrastructure, particularly the rights of way, have value, and we need to leverage that value to extend broadband … to places that don’t presently have it.”
Like most states, Ohio has been aware that a significant portion of its population, mostly in rural areas, has little to no access to high-speed Internet. But it wasn’t until the latest administration, led by Gov. Mike DeWine, that Ohio sent out an RFI to carve out a path to a statewide broadband policy and plan.
After reviewing the results of the RFI, which garnered replies from more than 20 respondents, it’s now more than clear to Husted that Ohio must confront the challenge of convincing different parties, “who have no specific interest in working together,” to come to the same table in order to better society. Put another way, the state has no interest in competing with the private sector.
“You might have a telecommunications company, you might have a data center company, a cloud services company, a utility, a local cable provider — all of these companies have the ability to help us solve the aggregate problem,” Husted said.
The broadband problem in question is most acute in the state’s rural Appalachian areas. Mike Jacoby, president and CEO of the Appalachian Partnership for Economic Growth (APEG), said the conversation about this issue has gone on for about 20 years.
“Typically in our cities and around our cities [within the Appalachian region], we have some broadband coverage, but we are primarily a rural region, and so you can very quickly leave one of our cities and be in an area where you have no broadband availability,” Jacoby said. “And in fact, we have a lot of counties where, you know, less than 50 percent of our population has access to broadband.”
Measuring the coverage issue, though, presents its own mountain to climb. The Federal Communications Commission has admitted that its current broadband map data undersells the severity of the problem for many populations across the country. Husted said Ohio is working on a more accurate broadband coverage map, a goal that further underscores the importance of forming strong bonds with every relevant player.
“What we need is for the private-sector providers to help us fill in those gaps [in coverage data] by providing that information,” Husted said. “Some of them will suggest that they can’t do it because it’s proprietary. But frankly, if you’re talking about infrastructure like that, I don’t really believe that it needs to be secretive. They should be very forthcoming with what they have done. And we hope to create a better partnership with them to do that.”
Jacoby has an intense anecdotal understanding of the broadband coverage issue. APEG is a nonprofit organization that represents 25 counties where a total of roughly 1 million people live. A recent strategic exercise in the region illustrates the importance of broadband to these citizens of Ohio.
“We just completed a regional economic development strategic plan, and we held, it was a total of 36 meetings, including nine business focus groups and eight stakeholder meetings,” Jacoby said. “Broadband came up at every single one of these outreach meetings. So it’s a top priority.”
Interestingly, Jacoby said the lack of broadband has not had a negative impact on the region’s ability to attract businesses. But the issue certainly affects the region’s competitive potential.
“You need to be able to sell your products or services online,” Jacoby said. “You need to be able to find customers online. You need to be able to respond to customer requests, order inventory, manage your supply chain, deal with quality issues. When a business can’t do that effectively, they’re at a competitive disadvantage, and obviously that puts the future of the business in jeopardy.”
Some businesses may not exist due to a lack of broadband. As Jacoby pointed out, many small businesses start in the home, so if some Ohioan homes don’t have broadband, the state is “already behind” on business development. Additionally, workforce potential is negatively affected in Appalachia.
“We’ve got a workforce challenge where our workforce isn’t as competitive when you’re trying to recruit skilled employees from other parts of the state or the country,” Jacoby said. “They go to look at houses, and they can’t find a house they want with broadband coverage.”
Broadband limitations hold back some of Ohio’s future workforce, too. Jacoby shared an observation that applies to many families across the country: In order to complete simple homework assignments, some kids have to be driven to a McDonald’s or a public library for reliable Wi-Fi. This common type of story typically highlights an inconvenience, but Jacoby revealed a more troubling reality.
“You know, not every family can do that [for homework],” he said.
The state’s goal of increasing broadband coverage also goes beyond helping residents and businesses. Ohio has invested heavily in autonomous vehicles. Although most of the state’s testing for self-driving cars occurs near urban and suburban areas, Husted said Ohio received a grant to test autonomous vehicles in rural settings. Thus, as the RFI report shows, the broadband conversation in the state must involve references to this industry and other emerging innovations.
“We want to help people who are not part of the modern economy become part of it,” said Husted, who founded and leads InnovateOhio. “And also on the front end, it’s not just about bringing people up, it’s about how we are going to continue to advance in areas that we are already doing well.”
But what if there are some, as suggested by 2017 National Telecommunications and Information Administration data, who aren’t interested in broadband? For Husted, the job remains the same no matter who you’re talking about.
“[A]s the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,” Husted said. “We understand that not everybody is going to take advantage of the opportunity, but I don’t know what, from a public-sector point of view, suggests that we can avoid the responsibility.”