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Study: Digital divide growing in SE Ohio

Too many with poor to no connectivity and substandard service

According to a study released Thursday by Connect Ohio, older Ohioans, those living in rural Appalachian counties and residents with an annual income below $25,000 are falling even further behind in the digital divide than three years ago.

The study cites a lack of digital skills, increasing costs to connect to broadband service and a perception that the connectivity is not needed as the debilitating reasons why that gap is increasing.

“(But) developing the digital workforce skills that employers require can be essential to finding a job and growing a career,” said Stu Johnson, executive director of Connect Ohio. “Simply increasing broadband access is not enough. We must also provide training solutions to help develop Ohio’s workforce for today’s online jobs.”

Last week when Federal Communications Commissioner Mignon Clyburn visited Marietta she heard affirmations of the 2015 FCC Open Internet Order, which treats internet connectivity as a public utility– a need for every American, on par with electricity and running water. Clyburn was in town for the Appalachian Ohio-West Virginia Connectivity Summit and Town Hall held at Washington State Community College and Marietta High School July 18. More than 100 local residents and 16 delegations from Appalachian counties attended the two events.

In testimony before Congress this week, she described the challenges she experienced without cell service on her trip and also noted the shortcomings described by local residents who cannot rely on basic 911 connectivity, lose out on telehealth and education opportunities or whose businesses suffer because of unreliable or unaffordable service.

“Last week I had the privilege of traveling to Marietta, Ohio. It was there I heard countless stories from individuals, businesses and local government leaders who but for no other reason than their geographic location and maybe a slight income gap find themselves on the wrong side of the digital and opportunities divide in Appalachia,” testified Clyburn before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology Tuesday. “Too many families in rural America and even many urban communities are suffering from poor to no connectivity and substandard service that, to add insult to injury, is simply unaffordable.”

Liz Shaw, who organized the summit and town hall Clyburn attended in Marietta last week, said she was touched to see the impact those from the Mid-Ohio Valley made on Clyburn’s testimony.

“I teared up when in her opening remarks she mentioned Marietta,” said Shaw, who watched the C-SPAN broadcast of the discussion Tuesday. “And then as she fielded questions about problems and solutions she kept referring to Appalachian Ohio and West Virginia as examples in her answers. We’re really proud that she stuck up for us and that only a week after our summit our stories were heard before Congress.”

Clyburn testified to the many barriers facing those in the rural Mid-Ohio Valley counties in terms of high-speed connection, which were namely, education, telehealth access and at the top of her list: cost.

“The reality is that an $80 to $100 per month broadband bill is simply out of reach for Americans who are struggling to make ends meet,” said Clyburn. “Moving forward we have a choice to make as a commission. Will we be shortsighted and weaken a program designed to assist our nation’s most vulnerable? Or will we commit to constructively address and fix any remaining issues?”

Fellow commissioner and Chairman of the FCC Ajit Pai announced that August will be “Rural Broadband Month” at the FCC and noted coming bidding for the Connect America Fund Phase II auction. It’s projected to award up to $198 million annually for 10 years to service providers that commit to offer fixed voice and broadband services to residences and small businesses in areas that are currently unserved by broadband.

But Athens County Commissioner Lenny Eliason, who helped organize last week’s summit with Shaw, said the FCC and Congress should also require trackable accountability.

“When you agree to make a major investment in this utility, they really need to build benchmarks for accountability, not just that you built it, but that the service you’re providing is consistent,” said Eliason. “The high-speed connection both for upload and download speeds needs to be stable. I hope that this raises awareness and that we can see the federal programs having a more significant impact locally in the future.”

Meanwhile Rep. John Shimkus, R-Illinois, asked Clyburn if mobile broadband would fill the gaps in the unserved areas of the country like rural Appalachia.

“And if not do you see that coming around soon?” he asked.

“In Congressman (Bill) Johnson’s (R-Ohio) district, mobile broadband is definitely necessary especially on those roads where I did not have service, and especially in those households where they can only afford one connection,” responded Clyburn. “Mobile broadband definitely has to be front and center which is why we’re moving to the next phase of a mobility fund, but we cannot drop the ball when it comes to legacy because there are certain things you cannot do on a mobile device.”

Though Johnson said at the hearing he was unaware of the summit and visit, organizers of the summit last week confirmed he had a representative from his Marietta office present for the final hour of the summit and for the entire length of the town hall. His office was notified of the event along with the county commissioners and state representatives and senators from local Ohio and West Virginia districts.

“We invited both senators from Ohio and West Virginia and the local representatives including Congressman Johnson, that email went to his house.gov email,” said Eliason.

Shaw said some counties in Ohio like Meigs and Athens counties are already forming special committees to reach out to service providers to encourage rural investment but Eliason said the ball is currently in federal hands to either require or incentivize that move.

At a glance

¯ The Appalachian Ohio-West Virginia Connectivity Summit and Town Hall held at Washington State Community College and Marietta High School last week was mentioned before the before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology Tuesday.

¯ To view the full hearing visit: http://cs.pn/2h6tJsX.

¯ Connect Ohio also released its latest findings on broadband trends and their impact on Ohio Thursday.

¯ To view the full report visit: http://bit.ly/2v2msAe.

Source: Connect Ohio and Liz Shaw.

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