Federal Funding Looks To Bridge Digital Divide In Southeast Ohio

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — As federal stimulus money flows into states to rebuild post-pandemic, a top priority for southeast Ohio is addressing a longstanding infrastructure problem.

The region exists in a digital divide due to the lack of widespread broadband access. The problem is well known and became even more of an issue during the pandemic as parents and school children were forced to work from home.

But little progress has been made to address it.

“From 1990 to 2020 we’ve all been talking about the problems of the digital divide. There’s been 100 billion dollars spent to try and solve it and here we are with really no improvement,” broadband consultant Tom Reid said. “Also in some ways we’ve gone backwards in a lot of areas. The copper has become so decrepit that it won’t even support telephone services anymore.”

Internet service providers are reluctant to build out the infrastructure because in sparsely populated rural areas it would take a long time to recover the upfront investment. But the stimulus funding now changes the equation.

“We have an influx of state money to cover part of the construction cost,” Athens County Broadband Coordinator Paul Isherwood said. “It changes the accounting books and makes it so the return of the investment is actually there.” 

Part of the federal funding comes from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which has given money to Spectrum expand its digital footprint.

“It just gives us the opportunity to take our services that have been well received in some areas to people who have traditionally not had those services,” said Mike Pedelty, southern Ohio communications director for Charter, which owns Spectrum. 

People who haven’t had service may need more than just internet access to take advantage of it, however.

Isherwood is working toward expanding digital inclusion for those who are lacking in computer literacy.

“You can build the best Wi-Fi in Athens County with the highest speeds available, but if we don’t have a community with the skill set in position to take full advantage of that then it will have very little value,” he said.

As the first steps are being made, roundtable conversations with the community on these issues are going to be scheduled for the end of July.