SCIOTO — The issue of broadband access in Appalachia precedes the coronavirus but has only made its presence felt more throughout the past 10 months. Now, a pilot program in Scioto and Jackson counties could alleviate part of that problem.
During a news conference outside the Scioto County Welcome Center, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted provided details on the use of six Multi-Agency Radio Communication System towers, two in Jackson and four in Scioto, to broaden access of the service.
“When we got elected to these jobs, we said that we knew how important the expansion of broadband was to the people of this state,” he said, referring to Gov. Mike DeWine who was busy working on the Covid vaccine rollout Friday morning. “You can’t participate in the modern economy, the modern education system, or the modern health care system without it.”
The pandemic has perhaps drawn more attention to how essential broadband is, he said, and that past progress had not been enough to meet those needs. Now through this private and public partnership, the sole awarded company could receive at least $5,000 monthly through grants.
PSKC Crossfit owner Dale King told the audience that broadband access, which U.S. Census 2015-2019 data finds over 28% in Portsmouth and over 26% in Scioto lacks, increases both the knowledge and opportunities for those that have it.
“I’m one of the lucky ones who take internet access for granted,” he said, who can attest to its effectiveness and need as a veteran and business owner. “However, from the hollers of Otway to the hills of South Webster, our kids are living in the darkest canyon of the digital divide.”
Those without broadband have out of necessity due to virtual learning or working from home have needed to travel to the parking lots of restaurants and libraries to finish assignments, which King says holds back the community as a whole and less than what it is owed.
“Southern Ohio isn’t just asking for an opportunity to compete, we want to show you we’ll win,” he said. “We just need the same access to the information pipeline that our big city neighbors have. We deserve better than parking lot Wi-Fi.”
While these towers have been placed in Ohio since 2001, the finances for it were only recently made possible by the refinancing of assets led by Matt Damschroder, Director of Ohio Department of Administrative Services.
“It’s creative ways, it’s thinking about doing things differently, and treating this like a mission that we have to get accomplished,” said Husted, where refinancing could save taxpayers $1 million and open up further assets.
An expansion could happen to the state’s approximately 150 MARCS towers if the project proves as successful as the team, composed of varying state agencies, hopes.
“This isn’t an announcement of something that might happen, this is an announcement of something that is going to happen,” said Husted. “This has the potential to be big. If this works, what we’re doing here has the potential to serve hundreds of thousands of people.”
Damschroder said the importance of these towers became apparent in the 1990s, where incidents including the 1993 Lucasville prison riots took place.
“Those incidents, along with others, taught us the importance of first responders being able to communicate together through the same system,” he said, where the current system is always on and one of the largest in the country.
Over the next month, the state will be reviewing the files and choose the telecommunications company for the project. Those applicants are told to email broadbandohio@development.Ohio.gov or visit the Ohio Development Services Agency website.
Interested companies can start applying Jan. 22 and will be judged on range, speed, and price of their minimum tier service. All applicants will need to meet the minimum federal definition of high-speed internet- 25 megabits download and three megabits upload.
“We want great service with great prices,” said Husted, where the deadline to apply is 5 p.m. Friday, Feb. 26. Grants will be awarded no later than March 31.
Reach Patrick Keck (740)-353-3501 ext. 1931, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @pkeckreporter.
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