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Recent News // Improving broadband access in Fairfield County is goal of effort

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

January 3, 2017

The Columbus Dispatch | By Tim Feran

Fairfield County is set to get a big boost this year in getting better access to broadband and internet technology.

That’s because Connect Ohio, which advocates for broadband access in the state, has selected the county and four other areas to participate in the Connected Community Engagement Program.

“It’s not a magic wand, but it sets a course of reasonable anticipation and ways to make it affordable,” said Stu Johnson, the executive director of Connect Ohio and vice president of Connected Nation. “The last thing the world needs is more research that doesn’t lead to an actionable plan.”

The program assesses areas of focus and crafts a plan to enhance the technology standing of places such as Fairfield County.

“Our county is in a great position for growth,” said Rick Szabrak, director of Fairfield County Economic Development. “We’re both a mixture of Columbus suburbs and a gateway into southeastern Ohio. With that comes a broad mix of both urban and rural development and a wide range of accessibility to high-speed internet and broadband service.

“As we look to attract more companies to our county, we need to make sure we’re fiber-ready and that our population — current and future — is adept with technology and has the access it needs, whether at home, school or work.”

The awards are part of Connect Ohio’s funding from the state to continue advancing broadband access, adoption and use.

Connect Ohio is a program of Connected Nation, a community technology-planning and data-analysis organization.

The Connected Community Engagement Program began in 2008.

“We gathered community leaders and tried to get an understanding of what their broadband capabilities were,” Johnson said. “It was fairly rudimentary, but combined with our mapping, it gave us a good indication of the status of those communities.

“Since then, we’ve come up with a systemic approach to broadband planning efforts and done it in 350 communities across the nation,” he said.

At the time the call for applications was sent out, Fairfield County officials had already seen what technology could do for the area’s growth.

“Earlier this year, AT&T made Rock Mill Industrial Park in Lancaster its first fiber-ready business park.” Szabrak said. “A big part of that was knowing the potential for growth. That opened our eyes to having a better understanding of what’s available across the county.”

In addition, the Fairfield County Regional Planning Commission has begun working on a comprehensive plan for growth, “and part of what we look at is technological capabilities,” Szabrak said.

“So this all came together at the perfect time.”

In addition to Fairfield County, the four other areas are Dayton; Meigs and Vinton counties; Wyandot County; and the Western Reserve Port Authority and Oak Hill Collaborative of Youngstown.

Connect Ohio hopes to complete the programs by May.

“Normally it takes nine months, but we’re going to try to push it,” Johnson said.

Afterward, communities will begin using the assessment plan to target areas in which action can be taken.

“It’s a big document with tons of data,” Johnson said. “From an economic-development standpoint, it serves as a great basis for grant opportunities. And if Fairfield has a potential company coming in, and the company says, ‘Can I get broadband? Is the community internet-savvy?’ Fairfield can drop this document and say, ‘We’re ready for you.’”