Internet dead zones leave locals frustrated at the lack of access | Panda Anku

BROOKFIELD TWP., Ohio (WKBN) – Debbie Cratsley cannot do what most people take for granted.

She can’t use her laptop, pay bills online, or stream TV shows, even after living in her family’s home for decades.

She said she contacted several internet service providers but was told they didn’t offer coverage in her area.

“I do everything from work, you know, because that’s the only option I have. Or my phone, when you’re working on a small screen, it’s so hard to visualize things. I mean, when you’re planning a trip or buying tickets to a baseball game, you’re working on that tiny little screen, and it’s tough.”

She’s frustrated, and Brookfield community trustee Dan Suttles said she’s not the only one in the community who doesn’t have access to the internet.

“We look at it like everyone has; it’s an obvious utility, like water and electricity, and that’s not the case. We shouldn’t have separate parts of our church that don’t have that ministry where the rest of the church does,” he said.

Suttles said he reached out to Spectrum – the internet service provider for the area – years ago to get internet access in another area: on one side of Obermiyer Road where 12 households don’t have access. Just across the busy Route 82, neighbors have service across the street.

He said he was told at the time that it would cost up to $28,000 to run Spectrum’s lines across the street, not to every household.

WKBN recently spoke to Spectrum and learned that the community is committed to closing the coverage gap. A feasibility study will be conducted to determine the cost of providing services to all.

Suttles said he recently contacted Spectrum again because the trustees reconsidered the issue once American Rescue Plan funds became available to the community. Funding is provided by the federal government to address issues that have arisen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Suttles thought there might be an opportunity to use some of these funds to upgrade broadband infrastructure in the community.

However, lack of broadband access is not a problem that is only centered in the community. Much of Trumbull County has Internet dead zones where either access is restricted or service is slow enough to fall short of the Federal Communications Commission’s benchmark for broadband service delivery.

The state’s fixed broadband service map

Internet speeds throughout Trumbull County

The Trumbull County Planning Commission has been working on the issue since 2017, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and people were forced to work from home, officials realized how widespread the problem was.

“It was a real struggle and people weren’t able to pull it off, along with the kids going to school virtually. If you live in a rural area with no services, your child will not be able to go to school and that is unacceptable. And it got to the point where I think everyone realized that this isn’t just a convenience issue; it’s no longer necessary,” said Nicholas Coggins, associate director of the Trumbull County Planning Commission.

A study commissioned by the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments found nearly 40,000 households in the region lacked internet access, while the region saw a nearly 10 percent increase in self-employment, which usually correlates with homeworkers.

This study cited stories of people going to the public library to apply for jobs and college students doing their homework at fast-food restaurants to access high-speed connections — a problem that has emerged during the pandemic was amplified when some schools could not even transition to distance learning.

Map of internet speeds in Ohio
Internet speeds across the country

Brookfield Local Schools Superintendent Toby Gibson said as they moved to virtual learning, they had to accommodate students who didn’t have access to the internet.

“We bought Hot Spots because we realized early in school that there were families in the community who didn’t have access to Wi-Fi or who had limited internet connectivity in terms of signal capacity,” he said.

When funds were made available to the district to improve broadband access, district officials were able to purchase Wi-Fi antennas to turn the football stadium into a hotspot. Gibson said some students then drove to the parking lot to do their schoolwork.

Work is underway to find a regional solution, but it’s not a quick job and it’s not cheap.

The Trumbull County Planning Commission, along with Mahoning and Ashtabula counties, have partnered with the Eastgate Council of Governments on a project Coggins calls the “Middle Mile Backbone.”

The idea is to install a high-speed fiber optic line along nearly 100 miles of Route 11 from Lake Erie to the Ohio River, and then build along the major freeways. It wouldn’t offer services to the likes of Cratsley out of the box, but it’s expected to give internet service providers the ability to reach people in more rural areas that they previously couldn’t.

“At Trumbull, we want to utilize the primary routes in each township to make it easier for Internet Service Providers to lease or use lines designed to get to Trumbull County residents and businesses so they have unserved and underserved areas can be served,” said Coggins.

Ohio broadband line

There are several steps in this process. First, a feasibility study was conducted to locate the problem areas. This study started in November 2020 and was completed in June 2021.

Coggins said this study shows that the top of the county has the most unserved and underserved residents. “Underserved” is defined as broadband speeds less than 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads.

But middle parts of the county — near Mosquito Lake and elsewhere — have been completely untouched by Internet access.

Trumbull County coverage map

There were also some interesting findings. While less populated areas had less broadband access, three local communities with populations over 5,000 were among the “least connected communities” in the state – Youngstown (2nd); Warren (5th) and Niles (32nd).

And despite the presence of Youngstown, the most urban area in the study, Mahoning County still has the lowest median broadband download speed among counties, according to the Purdue Center for Regional Development’s 2020 Digital Divide Index.

WKBN has contacted several ISPs regarding these issues, particularly in Brookfield Township. Several companies confirmed that the community is simply not within their service area, and some commented on the challenge of serving such an area.

“Lightly populated areas are difficult for any communications provider to serve due to the cost of building and maintaining network infrastructure. We’re constantly looking for ways to expand or enhance our broadband services, which includes working closely with policymakers on creative public-private partnerships that encourage broadband investment and bring high-speed internet service to more homes and businesses,” said Mark Molzen, global returns director for Lumen, formerly CenturyLink, in an email statement.

The company declined to talk further about the potential cost and details of such an expansion.

With respect to the Middle Mile Backbone project, the next phase is to conduct a preliminary technical analysis to determine the details and total cost, which is expected to exceed $15 million.

The hope is that an organized regional effort will be more apt to receive state or federal funding.

Coggins stressed that the project should not compete with the private sector.

“As a government agency, we’re not trying to become an ISP and that’s not the goal,” he said. “We just want to help bring the lines to people who either don’t have or have a limited amount, making it more affordable for existing ISPs to provide Internet access to those individuals and businesses.”

Upgrades are already being worked on to bring the area up to date.

The Eastgate Regional County of Governments was awarded $1.45 million in October 2020 for the SMART2 Network program, which will provide 10 miles of fiber optic lines across the city as the first step in building a broadband network that can support businesses, healthcare, education and residents Installed downtown Youngstown.

The feasibility study cited this project as a means to drive further development through the expansion of the Route 7 network.

Cratsley, not knowing what it’s like to have internet in her home, looks forward to any solution that can be reached, but says it can’t come fast enough.

“I think in 2022 it’s time for you to modernize with the rest of the world,” she said.

Leave a Comment