Children study online
Children study online [Courtesy Melanie Farkas]

Pandemic Highlights Importance of Broadband Access

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (Statehouse News Bureau) — Much of what’s happening now in Ohio and for the foreseeable future is online, and that’s exposing some serious problems in broadband service across Ohio.

With Ohio’s schools closed, teachers are putting their lessons online and millions of Ohioans are working from home.

Tens of thousands are tuning into the daily coronavirus updates from Gov. Mike DeWine, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted and Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton.

Last week the Ohio Supreme Court held two days of oral arguments via videoconference for the first time ever. And other state business, such as the House’s coronavirus economic task force, is also meeting virtually. Doctors are providing medical care via telemedicine. Because Ohioans can’t go out, they are socializing online.

All of this online usage doesn’t come as a surprise to Michelle Francis with the Ohio Library Association.

“What’s great right now is that of Ohio’s public libraries, our 251 systems, almost all of them have left the Wi-Fi on,” Francis says.

Libraries in Ohio are closed, which means those who used to go in to get online have had to find workarounds.

“We had people sitting in our parking lots at night, kids doing their homework, people communicating with their families online, people trying to apply for jobs online, utilizing the libraries Wi-Fi,” Francis says.

Some libraries have boosted their Wi-Fi recently to help meet the demand. Many libraries have purchased hot spots that patrons can access with their library cards.

Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted is in charge of a newly created office, Broadband Ohio.

“The coronavirus pandemic has really put a magnifying glass on the challenges that people have with lack of access,” Husted says.

A 2018 US Census report showed 710,000 Ohioans don’t have any access to broadband at home. Some cities have spotty coverage areas, and the terrain in southern Ohio makes it a challenge. During this pandemic, Husted says internet suppliers have come together with the state to expand service to new customers and make sure existing customers who depend on it can keep it.

“The connecting America pledge is to not cut anybody off from their internet connectivity during this time frame for non-payment. And there’s also been special deals from some of these companies to provide free internet access for people who didn’t have it,” Husted says.

And the Broadband Ohio initiative has also added hotspots throughout the state where people can go to access internet service for free. Husted says his office plans to use state and federal funds to provide incentives for broadband providers to expand access to areas that have been left behind in the digital age because there isn’t a market solution otherwise.

“This pandemic makes it very clear that this is no longer a luxury. It is a necessity in the modern world and we need to create the public private partnerships to bring that to reality as quickly as we can to as many people as we can,” Husted says.

And with the possibility that offices, schools and universities might be only online for the next few weeks or even months, the pressure is on the state and those providers.