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How poor internet service is affecting public health in both urban and rural areas

'So if you need help, you're just SOL'
Internet Outage-East Coast
Posted at 5:00 AM, Jun 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-10 19:54:17-04

JEFFERSON TOWNSHIP, Ohio — You've been there. Me, too. Streaming important calls or meetings online until, wham. Weak connections wreak havoc. Frozen video, no audio, and it takes seemingly forever to re-connect.

It is more than a temporary headache for some. In parts of the Tri-State, poor internet access is threatening public health.

"(Service) goes in and out constantly, even if you do have high-speed," said Tressa Grooms of Adams County.

About two hours east of Cincinnati, past the Edge of Appalachia Nature Preserve, lies Blue Creek, a Jefferson Township community where a thousand people live scattered across 43 miles and high-speed internet streams like mud.

"The phone rings, it will put the internet out," Grooms said. "My granddaughter actually does home school. She has a hard time getting access to the home-schooling learning programs. It's just very poor."

Grooms and her husband, Terry, pay $117 a month for broadband, she said. They have reliable connections maybe one day a week, Grooms added.

"It's worth maybe 40 bucks," she said.

Dr. William Habliztel, Health Commissioner for Adams County, lives there, too, and sees connections between internet access and the county COVID-19 vaccination rate. Just 25.6% of its population over 12-years-old eligible have taken at least one dose. That is the second lowest vaccination rate in Ohio. Only Holmes County, 14.9%, ranks lower.

"On multiple levels not only is broadband a problem, we have areas of the county that (do not) have cellular service," Dr. Habliztel said. "We found when we do disease investigation or contact tracing during the pandemic, a lot of people we can't reach because they have no cell service. Major access to physicians both medical and mental health care is now done through telemedicine. You need a good internet speed, broadband, for that to happen effectively. So, if they're not able to use internet, they're at a distinct disadvantage."

"If you don't have either Wi-Fi or landline, you have no contact to the outside," Grooms added. "So if you need help, you're just SOL."

Gaps in high-speed internet coverage are hardly just a rural Ohio problem. Access issues exist in Cheviot, Deer Park, Lincoln Heights, Lockland and Mt. Healthy. In those communities, Hamilton County commissioners, using community development block grants, ordered the installation of 175 internet access points.

Federal Communications Commission research estimates 14.5 million Americans in rural areas have no access to standard broadband, which is defined as 25/3 Mbps download/upload speed.

That is enough to stream a 4K movie, at least until too many neighbors begin streaming at the same time. More than just televisions, laptops and tablets use broadband. Doorbells, Smart refrigerators and washing machines hog bandwidth, too.

"In my house I had 47 connected devices in my home right now and every one of those is pulling bandwidth at the same time," said Jason Praeter, President of Entertainment and Communications for Cincinnati Bell.

More people working from home tested providers.

"With the pandemic and COVID-19 hitting last year, we've always been an important utility function as far as internet and phone, but the connectivity portion of that became so apparent last year," Praeter said.

Solutions range from satellite to fiber-optic upgrades. Each carry costs high enough that Congress approved spending $3.2 billion on the Broadband Emergency Benefit Fund. It pays up to $50 a month on internet bills for low-income homes.

With money from the FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the Tri-State's biggest internet provider, Spectrum, is expanding its network in unserved rural areas too.

"There's been a lot of expansion the past couple of years of fiber optics in Adams County," Hablitzel said. "But there's a point where that infrastructure stops and it's not economically feasible to extend it further."

Part of the challenge with network expansion is time. Some connections need a lot of it. Optical fiber requires a line run from provider hubs to individual homes or businesses. The advantage is it ensures each customer shares bandwidth only with devices inside that customer's home.

Though, in communities scattered miles apart or where installation crews have to dig around railroads, rough terrain and wait for permits, installation moves slowly or not at all.

"For your address tomorrow, if we said go, it could be two months," Praeter said. "It could be up to a year. It just depends on what obstacles we face."

In Boone County, Kentucky, the fiscal court and Cincinnati Bell agreed to split construction costs in order to deliver fiber-optic service to every address within 36 months.

"It came together in a whirlwind and it was a really brave decision by Boone County," Praeter said. "We want to make sure no matter where you are you can connect to loved ones, you can connect to work and you can really live life on your own terms."

Similar partnerships exist in Covington's Eastside and Peaselburg neighborhoods.

"The private sector is not going to come unless they get a return on their investment," Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said. "They're not going to get a return on their investment in rural Ohio."

Back in Ohio, Middletown's Amanda Elementary celebrated with Husted and Gov. Mike DeWine. Using an antenna that will soon be connected to the state's fiber network, the school will deliver high-speed services to homes within a mile-and-a-half radius for $15 a month. The network can expand the service with similar antennae.

"This is something that's going to come to Adams County, Brown County," DeWine said. "But you also have people in east Cleveland. You also have people in Cincinnati who don't have the access that they need."

Ohio House Bill 2 sets up a $20 million grant program to make broadband expansion more affordable for customers and companies.

Needs are so great statewide, though, that DeWine already asked lawmakers for an extra $190 million.

While crews are building hubs to connect homes near Blue Creek, one question runs through the Grooms' minds: When will it work for them?

"It's such a rural county," Tressa Grooms said. "We just don't exist."