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Over 200 homes to gain access to better internet speeds

(Graphic by Janelle Patterson)

In less than three weeks, more than 200 households between Adams and Salem townships will have access to national-standard internet speeds off of two antennae to be installed on the Highland Ridge Water Tower.

How?

On Thursday, the Washington County Commissioners approved a memorandum of understanding to allocate federal CARES Act stimulus dollars to the Southeast Ohio Broadband Cooperative with the financial support of $50,000.

David Brown, a founding member of the cooperative, was notified by the Times on Thursday that the allocation passed.

“That money is going to go to putting up our very first site and we have chosen (that site) based on what we found out from the speed test and availability,” explained Brown.

The excitement was palpable as word spread, not only from the fledgling cooperative which formally organized this year before coronavirus struck Ohio and formally recognized as a not-for-profit cooperative by the state on April 3.

“That’s fantastic, the commissioners just voted to give every school district $50,000,” quantified Warren Local Schools Superintendent Kyle Newton. “I would rather them have taken those six (sets of) $50,000 to run and put six towers out throughout the county that would have been even a better deal.”

In October, the cooperative launched a grassroots, resident-driven data study which garnered the participation of 2,614 households in Washington County in reporting actual internet speeds or lack of service at their homes (See eight Times’ articles published between Oct. 7 and Oct. 31).

Now the first result of that data collection is set to be installed before the new year.

“So, that speed test was critical. And the design we got from GEO Partners told us what gear we needed, where we needed to place it, how many antennas and where to aim them,” explained Brown.

The first site will predominately impact families living within the Fort Frye Local Schools area, but why should anyone outside of Fort Frye School District care?

“It’s proof of concept,” explained Brown. “Our first antenna is going to be on the Highland Ridge tank and it’s going to shoot into Lowell and cover Whipple. And our next is going to be in Newport; then we’re going to bounce signal between Newport and Highland Ridge … So those are the areas right now we’re seeing the most need and the least potential for somebody to come in with RDOF money and cover.”

RDOF is the federal auction for rights to install wired infrastructure by eligible rural census blocks which was officially awarded by the Federal Communications Commission this week to several large corporations, including $886 million awarded to the Elon Musk-owned Starlink which made national headlines in March and April when Musk launched two rockets with the aim of offering internet coverage in rural areas to the tune of $90-per-month bills.

But locally, the second tower installation is already planned by the cooperative (which then would also be owned by paying members of the cooperative like the Highland Ridge tank) once funds are secured is on a county emergency radio tower in Newport Township, 12.07 miles southeast of the first installation as the crow flies.

What’s next?

1. Install the antennae at Highland Ridge.

2. Create a Washington County schools’ advisory committee to prioritize installation locations by interpreting cluster data from the cooperative’s speed test.

Coronavirus community spread is present in Washington County and public school districts are reporting new cases daily which is forcing quarantines of teachers, classrooms and sports teams.

Washington County was designated Level 3: Red on Thursday on the state public health advisory map.

Winter weather is driving closer contact between individuals and as of Thursday, 41 deaths of Washington County residents who were diagnosed with coronavirus were documented by the Ohio Department of Health.

The more rural school districts in the county are looking both to the state’s color-coded public health advisory system and to the zip code data for triggers of whether to take their students fully remote or even transition from five-days-per-week in school to a hybrid model of instruction separating students by grade level, cohort or another such density mitigator.

This week marked the first time Warren Local Schools has separated student populations in a broad scale due to the virus this school year.

Today is the deadline for Marietta City Schools’ families to indicate whether their child will be remote-learning in January or return to campuses every other week with the two in-person cohorts.

But if the state follows its public emergency actions of the spring again over this winter, school closures may be inevitable.

The good news: some of the technology gap has closed this school year with the purchase of laptops, wifi node installation on buses and the purchase of routers for low-income households living in between hills in the rural reaches of the county.

“I got our last batch (of new laptops for students) last week,” confirmed Fort Frye Local Schools Superintendent Stephanie Starcher on Monday.

Marietta City Schools Superintendent said the nodes installed on Marietta buses have not yet been used to park in specific locations within the district, though Darrell Prim, director of facilities, transportation and safety reported to the board education last month that installations were underway.

3. Continue gathering speed test information from township residents who remain under-represented for statistic validity.

“We’re still gonna continue to gather data,” explained Brown of the partnership with GEO Partners. “And they’re working on a compilation to send to the FCC.”

See below for remaining participation need, broken down by township, city and school district; and how to participate via a home computer, phone call, text message or work email.

If you do have internet at home: take the free speed test on your home computer. The test can be found at www.seobc.us.

If not:

a. Call 740-538-0084 and leave a message identifying your address, and say you do not have internet.

b. Text 740-538-0084 and leave a message identifying your address, and write that you do not have internet.

c. Email email seobc@gmail.com from your mobile device, work computer, neighbor’s computer or a computer at your local library: identifying your home address and share that you do not have internet at home.

See below continued Times’ coverage of the grassroots effort:

¯ How we got here: “Speed Test: Group pushes for data to provide better broadband” (Published Oct. 7).

¯ Early growth in participation: “Take the speed test, document internet access” (Published Oct. 9).

¯ Phone number option added: “Thousands more needed for internet speed test” (Published Oct. 10)

¯ Targeting of specific townships needed: “I have sufficient data to do an analysis today, but this is not sufficient to convince the FCC,” explained Glen Fishbine of GEO Partners in “Internet speed test proponents seek more participation” (Published Oct. 15).

¯ Township focus shows progress, and greater need: “Concerned residents are given the opportunity to refute internet service providers claims” (Published Oct. 21).

¯ Appalachian Speed Test Challenge in rivalry with West Virginia: “Mid-Ohio Valley reviews reaches of provided internet” (Published Oct. 22).

¯ Cut the billion-dollar wired broadband price tag by up to one-sixteenth the cost: “Internet speed test seeking 350 more participants” (Published Oct. 28).

¯ Prove to Washington, D.C., that Appalachia is done waiting: “Rural areas fight for high speed internet signals” (Published Oct. 31).

Remaining participation need as of Thursday:

¯ Aurelius Township needs a minimum of 54 more households in order to be accurately represented through statistic validation.

– Belpre City needs a minimum of 62 more households.

¯ Belpre Township needs a minimum of 50 more households. (Note, data has been updated to correct repeated tests at the same location).

¯ Dunham Township needs a minimum of 20 more households.

¯ Fairfield Township needs a minimum of 38 more households.

¯ Independence Township needs a minimum of 28 more households.

¯ Liberty Township needs a minimum of 39 more households.

¯ Ludlow Township needs a minimum of 36 more households, this need has not changed since Oct. 30.

¯ Palmer Township needs a minimum of 30 more households.

Church leaders, township trustees and volunteer firefighters in the above townships are challenged to also lead their residents to be accurately represented.

Janelle Patterson may be reached at jpatterson@mariettatimes.com

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