McARTHUR — Terri Fetherolf has two wishes for Vinton County: clean water and fast internet.
The first is imperative for its safety and health. "But rolling out broadband is key to our economic survival," said Fetherolf, Vinton County’s development director.
Today, high-speed internet has become a utility as important as sewage systems, the electricity grid and highways.
But despite the internet's tightening chokehold on technologies embedded in our pockets, homes, vehicles and public spaces, more than 1 million Ohioans have zero access to fast, reliable broadband at home.
Almost a third of Ohio's rural residents lack home access to broadband, compared with just 2 percent of urbanites, according to Federal Communications Commission estimates. Those figures are slightly better than the national rate.
Last week, a legislative proposal to establish a $50-million-per-year broadband development grant program inched forward, fueling the hopes of advocates.
"In Ohio, it’s just been an uphill battle. It’s been hard to rally enough attention," said Stu Johnson, executive director of Connect Ohio, a broadband technology non-profit group. "In the last year and a half, two years, there’s been more and more momentum."
Currently, the burden of providing broadband falls on private industry, which doesn't stand to profit from expanding coverage in sparsely populated regions, Johnson said. State and federal governments finally seem willing, he said, to help patch holes in the country’s broadband network, he said.
"Now we’re asking, ‘What’s adequate access? And should it be any different than what we accept in urban areas?" Johnson said. "Should they use candles? Gravel roads? Is half-clean water okay?"
Local leaders say the digital divide has further isolated rural Ohio, already rendered remote by rolling hills, limited infrastructure and ongoing economic recovery from stagnated industries such as mining and logging.
Only about one in six of Meigs County’s 24,000 residents live in its seat, Pomeroy, or its largest village, Middleport. The rest reside in the country, where even mobile service is undependable. Across Meigs and Vinton Counties, more than half of residents lack adequate home broadband and about one-third of businesses don’t have a website.
"In this day and age, it’s hard to fathom that there’s so many gaps in coverage. We’ve been a step behind since forever," said Perry Varnadoe, Meigs County economic development director. "We are rural and remote, which means it’s more important for us to be connected."
In 2018, the implications of an internetless life — or one where connection is slow, expensive, limited and unreliable — are far-reaching.
On weeknights, students who are expected to thrive in an internet-enabled world flock to the closest McDonald’s to finish homework assignments using the chain's free WiFi. Other residents share the two-county region’s 41 internet-enabled public computers to check email, apply for jobs, read online news or tap state services, such as employment or vehicle registration.
Law enforcement can’t address cybercrimes such as identity theft, hacking, spam or ransomware. At one elementary school, teachers and staff members have no cellphone service in the building. Harrisville Township’s fire department celebrated the arrival of broadband this month.
Intelliwave, a wireless internet service provider in 15 counties across southern Ohio, focuses on filling the gaps left by larger carriers that say there is no financial incentive to develop expensive rural broadband infrastructure.
Hills, tree cover and sparse population still present barriers to connectivity, said Intelliwave CEO Chris Cooper.
"A lot of people see it as fly-over territory. That’s left space for us," Cooper said.
Unlike other states, Ohio does not have a dedicated broadband offices, task force or legislative committees. According to a 2017 Ohio State study, Ohio lags significantly in rural broadband access compared to states with similar population densities in rural areas.
Proposed legislation passed out of committee last week would create a program to provide $50 million each year in grants to private businesses, political subdivisions, nonprofit organizations and phone and internet cooperatives. It would expand coverage to approximately 14,000 Ohio households annually without raising taxes or using money from the state’s General Revenue Fund. Instead, it would use existing funding from Ohio Third Frontier bond revenue, an economic development initiative administered by the state.
In a study released this month, Purdue University researchers found that areas with the largest digital divide lost prime working population and suffered from substantially lower job growth.
"That is like trying to drive a car through the rearview mirror," said Roberto Gallardo, the assistant director of Purdue’s Center for Regional Development. "They’re being left behind."
Rural connectivity poses problems for well-connected metropolitan residents, as well, if they want to shop for small-town goods online, video conference with rural colleagues or avoid having their driverless car buffer on country roads.
"The internet is not a luxury anymore," Varnadoe said. "I’m a free-market person, but this is a place we need the government to step in. It’s coming, we just don’t know if it’s one year away or 20."