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Ohio's Digital Divide: Washington County Broadband Expansion
Having access to high-speed Internet service is not only a convenience but also a necessity for many. However, there are thousands of Ohioans in which having high-speed Internet availability is a luxury. Currently, 112,974 homes and businesses in Ohio do not have access to state and national standards of reliable, high speed Internet service. Nearly 65,000 of these are completely unserved, meaning no Internet service is provided to their address.
For one rural Ohio county, residents, business owners, first responders, and county officials have witnessed how a lack of Internet access can affect various aspects of a community. Washington County Commissioners and community stakeholders have worked alongside Connect Ohio for more than two years in an effort to bring broadband access to the area, as more than 6,000 homes and businesses are unserved.
In April 2011, Connect Ohio technical outreach manager Bart Winegar presented Washington County Commissioners with a customized expansion model and business case analysis. The model included data collection, cost estimates, and propagation studies to be utilized for a future Request for Proposal (RFP) for broadband expansion and was a result of the collaborative efforts between Connect Ohio, county commissioners, the county IT administrator, and the Buckeye Hill-Hocking Valley Regional Development District LDD GIS Department. At that time, Washington County commissioners had already secured agreements to utilize Multi-Agency Radio Communications Systems (MARCS) towers throughout the county to leverage existing infrastructure in order to distribute broadband signals to homes and businesses.
A month later, Washington County Commissioners announced the release of the RFP as an invitation to Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISP) to expand the access and availability of broadband Internet services to commercial, residential, and publically owned locations countywide. An objective of the countywide expansion included expanding law enforcement and first responder data network access. According to Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks, one of the biggest barriers for his deputies is simply filing an incident report. For example, a deputy gets dispatched to a call 40 minutes away from the sheriff’s office. Because the deputy does not have access to a wireless Internet signal, the deputy must drive back to the sheriff’s office in order to electronically file the report where Internet access is available.
“Countywide Internet access would be a huge benefit, not only for law enforcement, but also for the citizens in protecting their safety,” said Mincks.
County officials met with potential providers for months and found funding to be a key barrier in receiving any commitment to the expansion proposal. The Connect Appalachia Broadband Task Force, formed by Connect Ohio and in conjunction with the Governor’s Office of Appalachia, declared the Washington County expansion project as top priority. In June 2012, Jason Wilson, director of the Governor’s Office of Appalachia, announced a significant funding award of $100,000 from the State Appalachian Development Program to assist the Washington County broadband project. This paved the way for a formal agreement between Washington County Commissioners and Internet service provider Smart Networks to sub-lease space on the Ohio MARCS towers throughout the county and begin deploying countywide Internet service. In November 2012, Smart Networks hosted a ceremonious ribbon-cutting event with county residents, business owners, Washington County Commissioners, Connect Ohio, the Connect Appalachia Broadband Task Force, and community stakeholders. It was truly a community celebration for those who have already received high-speed Internet service from Smart Networks and those who will soon have access.
"It is great to see the work of the Connect Appalachia Broadband Task Force come to pass, getting more Appalachian Ohioans broadband access,” said Jason Wilson, director of the Governor’s Office of Appalachia. “Today is proof that working together and working smart can change lives and improve opportunities for residents. This announcement also makes the county more competitive for economic development and in a position for job creation."
“If we want to promote economic development throughout Ohio, we need to ensure that businesses have broadband access,” said U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown. “Ohio’s rural communities have been overlooked for too long, but this expansion has bridged the digital divide for Appalachian Ohio small businesses. Smart Networks will close the final link to provide broadband for Washington County — promoting economic growth and improving the competitiveness of southeast Ohio. This is an investment in the future of our state."
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