Digital divide: Broadband access in rural America

Lack of broadband access is a familiar problem for rural America.

Kyle Hicks sat at his computer at his Lancaster-area home, the homework assignment for his College Credit Plus course due in a few hours. He knew he was cutting it close.

Not that he didn’t have the assignment done. He’d finished the presentation well ahead of time. The only problem was that it was for an online course, and turning it in meant uploading it to a file-sharing site. With all of the images he had to include, it was a large file. Hicks was at the mercy of his internet connection, and he was sweating it.

Like a vast number of people in rural areas of Ohio and the rest of the nation, Hicks and his family have limited access to high-speed internet. The one company that provides broadband service where he lives promises connection speeds “up to 5 megabits per second,” but he says tests on the line show it’s rarely above 1 Mbps. What’s more, service in his area, even at that level, is expensive.

Satellite broadband could be an option but costs even more.

Hicks, a senior at Amanda-Clearcreek High School, has been a vocal advocate for improved broadband coverage in rural areas. He’s written to legislators and made public presentations to make the case for rural broadband, and he plans to study agricultural business and political science in college to take on the issue (among others).

He got that assignment in on time, but the file took hours to upload, rather than the minutes or even seconds it would have taken on the type of high-speed connection — often 100 Mbps or more — offered in urban and suburban areas.

“I feel like I’m fortunate to even have internet access where I live,” says Hicks, who represented South Central Power Company at the 2019 Electric Cooperative Youth Tour in Washington, D.C., and was named the state’s representative on the prestigious Youth Leadership Council. “I know of at least five to seven people just in my class of about 100 who have to find the time and find a way to get to the county library just to get any internet access so they can turn in assignments. It’s a real struggle.”

High-speed internet isn’t a luxury. “Access to broadband isn’t a nice-to-have. It’s a need-to-have,” says Brian O’Hara, senior director of telecom and broadband regulatory issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. “If there’s a lack of broadband, an employer may not set up shop in that community. Other employers may leave because it’s harder for them to sell their services, and young folks could leave the community for more opportunities.”

Hicks also talks about the need for farmers to be connected so they can remain competitive. “Much of the newer technology that is being created for agriculture requires use of the internet, so in order for family farms to implement changes, they need high-speed access,” he says. “Increasing yields and increasing production is needed in order to keep up with the world’s growing population, and that access will give them that power. It’s not just for farmers — that’s a benefit to everyone.”

If everybody should have broadband, why don’t they? On the surface, it looks similar to the rural electrification problem that was solved by the creation of electric cooperatives back in the last century, so it’s easy to assume that those same co-ops can, or even should, bridge the digital divide today. Of course, it’s not nearly that easy. As complicated as electrification was in the 1930s and ’40s, broadband is far more so — technologically, logistically, and economically.

Electric co-ops, being so closely tied to the communities they serve, are in a strong position to know what’s possible. They may have justifiable concerns about terrain, for example, that make deployment cost-prohibitive. Also, portions of many cooperatives’ territories now include relatively dense populations that are already well-served by competitive high-speed providers, which would limit potential revenue to cover new investment in rural areas.

The staff and management at all of Ohio’s electric cooperatives understand the need is there and are genuine in their desire to help. They also know, however, that a co-op’s money is members’ money, and they all take fiscal responsibility seriously.

The solution to electrification came from politics and partnerships — advocates moved the federal government to set up the Rural Electrification Administration — and it’s likely that broadband will need a similar push. There are signs that activity may be picking up on that front. In fact, Buckeye Rural Electric Cooperative, based in Rio Grande, recently received a $2.5 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to install optical fiber that could eventually connect residents and businesses in remote areas of six southeastern Ohio counties with high-speed service.

Without additional state or federal funding, however, most Ohio cooperatives have found that deploying a meaningful fiber network that could reach all of rural Ohio, without harming the cooperative’s electric business, is not yet a reachable goal. The best current answer, they say, is to intensify their own and their members’ lobbying efforts toward representatives who have the power to make that additional funding available.