WASHINGTON, D.C. — As the Ohio Farm Bureau made its yearly visit to Capitol Hill this week, one topic that was discussed with lawmakers is expanding access to rural broadband.
Data company BroadbandNow ranks Ohio as the 19th most connected state, with 93-percent broadband coverage and only 10-percent of the population underserved.
But a closer look shows many rural areas in the state are still struggling to reach the 25-mega-bits-per-second (mbps) minimum that the government considers accessible broadband.
“We’ve got many regions in our state, particularly in my district, [where] businesses will not come into because they can’t get access to the internet,” said Representative Bill Johnson (R-06).
Rep. Bob Latta (R-05) echoed Johnson’s concern.
“How do kids do their homework at night if they don’t have the opportunity to go online?” Latta asked.
BroadbandNow shows in map form which Ohio counties have access to 25+ mbps broadband, 100+ mbps, and 1 Gbit.
In Johnson’s district, Monroe County has one of the worst rates: Only 9.4-percent has access to 25+ mbps; and nowhere in the county has access to 100+ mbps or 1 Gbit.
In Latta’s district, 69-percent of the population in Putnam County has access to 25+mbps, 33-percent has access to 100+ mbps, and no one has access to 1 Gbit.
And in Rep. Bob Gibbs’ 7th Congressional District, 51-percent of the population in Holmes County has access to 25+ mbps, while 42-percent can access 100+ mbps and only 0.1-percent can access 1 Gbit.
“Not having that puts us at a competitive disadvantage in our communities, versus other communities that do have that service,” said Frank Burkett, the president of the Ohio Farm Bureau.
Burkett said talks about broadband are gaining momentum in Washington.
The recently-passed farm bill puts some more money toward the cause, but even Ohio lawmakers admit more has to be done.
“We still haven’t invested enough in broadband,” said Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH).
Gibbs, a farmer and former Ohio Farm Bureau president, said some progress was made in the farm bill.
“I want to do a lot more if we have an infrastructure bill,” Gibbs said. “Rural broadband will be a big component of that, at least I hope so.”
Ohio’s members of Congress said this isn’t just a money issue, but an accuracy problem.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been in charge of making the coverage maps that the government goes by.
“A lot of us looked at the maps of our states and our districts and said no, this isn’t correct,” Latta said.
Johnson said that’s because the FCC was using census data, which he said often glosses over more rural areas where people live farther apart from each other.
So Johnson recently helped switch that responsibility over to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which he thinks will be more accurate.
“If you’ve got a census block that has one internet access point in it, then according to the current rules, then that would be considered a served area,” Johnson said. “We know that that is not true.”
Johnson wanted the NTIA to step in because he said it’s more of a ‘doing agency’ than the FCC, which he called a ‘regulatory agency.’
The NTIA is part of the Department of Commerce, which Johnson said is in a better position to coordinate broadband mapping and funding efforts between federal, state and local governments.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the NTIA said it was announced last month that the agency will collaborate “with eight states to broaden and update the national broadband availability map.”
And though Ohio is not on that list, the statement said the initial map, which should be completed later this year, “will include available nationwide data for every state.”
The statement added that “this is just a first step. We are open to any and all innovative proposals.”