IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Support for Internet Key to Getting Rural Areas Connected

Ohio digital inclusion advocates are working hard to make sure that rural communities in the state have the best weapon for getting high-speed Internet — communities that know Internet matters.

Shutterstock/Alena Mozhjer
Evan Callicoat wants people to know about the robots that milk cows. And the GPS-guided tractors that just about drive themselves. And the data analytics that can optimize use of fertilizer.

In effect, Callicoat wants farmers and other residents of rural areas to know how high-speed Internet would make life better. This is part of his job as director of state policy for the Ohio Farm Bureau, a group that lobbies for the interests of rural communities. If people in rural Ohio — as well as rural areas of other states — personally want better Internet, it would help advocates like Callicoat as well as government ensure that they get it.

American government has never been more focused on getting high-speed Internet to rural communities, investing an historic amount of funding for it while rallying cross-sector partnerships that include government, corporations and philanthropies. These giant institutions, however, need help from the little guy. Basically, they need people who live and work in rural towns to tell them where the problems are. Because if they don’t know where a problem is, they simply cannot fix it.

And while farm technology is one of the flashier ways to get across why rural communities need the Internet, Callicoat says there’s more. Many of those communities have trouble with medical care, and high-speed Internet means access to telehealth. Plus, watching streaming video — from Netflix to YouTube — is a nice thing. A good TV show is a relaxing escape after a long day of hard work. And businesses anywhere need reliable Internet to set up websites or run credit cards.

Looking at the work that Callicoat and others are doing to connect Ohio — and what they have learned from it — is perhaps illustrative for others doing similar work in any rural area. While the topography and weather may vary, challenges remain the same. And one of those challenges is getting folks to report Internet speeds.

To this end, BroadbandOhio — the state agency that works to get the entire state connected — recently sent more than 85,000 letters to residents, all with instructions for how they can submit info about Internet availability to the powers that be. They also built a web page for challenging Internet speeds, which for years were submitted to the Federal Communications Commission by the same telecommunications companies that sell Internet for profit.

BroadbandOhio is also preparing to basically go on tour, said Brian Bohnert, a spokesman for the agency. The BroadbandOhio team is hosting several statewide listening sessions in person as well as webinars, all to hear what local governments and their residents are experiencing with their high-speed Internet. In a statement, Bohnert described the feedback from this tour as “crucial to maximizing Ohio’s allocation” from the Broadband Equity Access Deployment (BEAD) program.

He also noted that the local feedback is important in two major ways: making sure local voices have a say in the five-year action plan the state will submit to the federal government for BEAD funding, and finding local leaders who can take point in getting their people connected. Finding people who live and are active in communities to help their neighbors is a key pillar of digital inclusion advocacy.

One such local champion already doing the work is Ryan Collins, special projects manager and broadband coordinator of the Buckeye Hills Regional Council, which represents local governments in southeastern Ohio. Buckeye Hills Regional Council was recently picked by BroadbandOhio to lead digital inclusion work in that region.

Collins agrees with the consensus: People understanding the need for high-speed Internet is key to the work.

“One big piece is doing community outreach and helping communities understand what is broadband and why do they need it,” Collins said. “Fortunately, a lot of our communities do.”

The pandemic helped foster this understanding, especially as it relates to school kids. There was a lot of news coverage about kids going to McDonalds’ parking lots to use Wi-Fi in order to do homework. Collins said in southeastern Ohio, those kids didn’t even have a McDonalds. No, to learn during the pandemic, kids had to physically go to school, pick up paper packets, do their homework and return them.

“Not only do we have communities that don’t have broadband,” Collins said, “we have communities that don’t have cellphone service, so they couldn’t even go pick up a hot spot.”

That’s one argument for getting communities on board to support the work. Another is economic development. Southeastern Ohio, or Appalachian Ohio, Collins said, is a gorgeous place with a low cost of living. It’s tranquil, and it should be attractive to the pandemic-sparked mass of new remote workers, which would bring more dollars to the region and reverse brain drain. But it needs high-speed Internet for them to do their work.

“Broadband is kind of a light of hope for communities,” Collins said. “It is the No. 1 equity tool for the future. If we want to see an equitable future, we need everyone hooked up to good broadband.”
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.