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Leaders connect on web access

MAKING CONNECTIONS — U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, right, speaks with FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly and Laura Wilson, policy adviser with Johnson’s office, about options to expand broadband Internet access during an event Thursday at Buckeye Local High School. -- Robert A. DeFrank

RAYLAND — A lack of Internet access has been a major issue for U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, who said much of Ohio’s 6th Congressional District is underserved.

On Thursday afternoon, Johnson invited Commissioner Mike O’Rielly of the Federal Communications Commission to Buckeye Local High School to hear directly from a panel of local officials, business leaders, state officials and American Electric Power and energy cooperatives to discuss options to extend access.

“Rural broadband access is a big, big issue in this part of the country. People up and down the Ohio River are concerned. We don’t have adequate broadband for education. We don’t have adequate broadband for business, we don’t even have adequate broadband for what most Americans use to stay connected,” Johnson said.

Internet access has been an issue he has pursued since taking office in 2011.

“It’s a complicated problem and we need all hands on deck. I’m getting frustrated we haven’t made any more progress than we have over the past eight years.”

He said the rural-urban divide continues to stymie the influx of new business.

“We’ve had a number of companies that have gone elsewhere to set up their headquarters. They’ll pop in and pop out to get their work done, but they’re not going to stay because they can’t bring their families here. They can’t bring their business executives here,” he said. “If we don’t solve this rural broadband problem in the next few years, we’re not going to have a rural broadband problem to solve. Families are leaving.”

Johnson said he hoped O’Rielly would leave better informed of the challenges in this area.

“The commissioner is going to hear from people who live it on a daily basis,” Johnson said. He plans to hold similar events throughout the region.

“We have a lot of investment in terms of dollars and time, and we’re really trying to make all of Americans have access,” O’Rielly said, adding that he looks for solutions to Internet access as he travels the United States.

“I want to hear about what unique challenges are here. We live in a bubble in Washington, D.C., and my job is to get out of the bubble.”

Johnson said there are programs and funding available, such as the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund of $20.4 billion that will be coming from the FCC to the states provide rural broadband access.

“We want to make sure that money is spent the right way,” Johnson said.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for us to provide an understanding of what’s happening,” said Jeannette Wierzbicki, executive director of Ohio Mid-Eastern Governments Association.

She said some of the major obstacles are terrain and a lack of a rural customer base for some of the providers. Wireless connection would be best in some areas, and extending existing utilities in others, according to Wierzbicki.

“We have to keep an open mind on what’s available.”

She said a lack of broadband remains a major barrier to attracting downriver business.

Bob Stewart, state director of government and external affairs with Frontier Communications, which covers about one third of Ohio’s land mass, said his company continues broadband expansion using funding from the FCC, with a minimum of 10 megabits per second. He said Ohio has a high number of under-served users, and about one third of total FCC funding for Frontier, or $22 million, goes into Johnson’s district.

“Constructing in this area is much different than constructing in Columbus,” he said, indicating the topography and land mass.

He said income per household is another issue that affects demand.

Ed VanHoose, general manager of the Lorain-Medina and North Central Electric Cooperatives Association, compared the situation to the initial formation of the co-ops.

“Co-ops were formed because investors wouldn’t go into rural Ohio, so the co-ops took it on themselves to get electric service in. We need to do that again on the rural broadband side,” he said. “All the electric co-ops in Ohio have begun or completed feasibility studies for broadband. Every one of us.”

Other panelists included Scott S. Osterhold, director of grid modernization with American Electric Power, and Charley Moses, president of Ohio Telecom Association.

Lucas Parsons, principal of Buckeye Local High School, gave a perspective of the more rural areas in the school district’s seven communities.

“The way we teach and the way we learn, it is a hindrance if we don’t have that,” he said.

“Education has changed. Education is turning digital. Our books are digital. They’re going into a digital work force. The closer we are to the river, we’re lucky enough to have some decent broadband. When you get farther out into our small communities within our district, it becomes a harder thing to do.”

He said the school building itself lacks cell phone service in many areas. About 30 to 40 percent of Buckeye Local High School’s students are without Internet access, or more than 100 of the 388 students.

This further complicates the need to keep up with work during snow days and emergency days.

“There is a majority of students that live in the areas that probably do not have broadband access, and what they do have access to is spotty at best. I run the social media for the school so I get to see a lot of the complaints that parents have about whatever service they have cutting out for days at a time before they even have the Internet again,” he said.

“My hope is to see an infrastructure that will be able to (provide for) the growing need for Internet in this area,” he added.

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