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Grant aims to improve high speed internet access in rural Ashtabula County

Green ethernet cables connect to a router.
Andrei Metelev
Broadband in rural areas of Ohio, including Ashtabula County, can be hard to get. New grant money aims to increase access.

Ashtabula County is getting nearly $2.5 million to expand high speed internet.

Disparities in access to internet are rampant in rural areas, according to a report from Ohio State University. Nearly one million Ohioans lack access to high speed internet, many of whom live in rural parts of the state where internet providers say it's too expensive to extend service. The report found that there's a strong economic benefit for the state to invest in expanding broadband and making it more affordable.

Jessica Schillace lives in Jefferson, a rural township with a population of a little more than three thousand people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. During the pandemic, her family’s internet access was awful, she said.

“Our speed was approximately dial-up speed," Shillace recounted.

Last spring, a fiber line was installed on her road, and her family was able to connect to it, Shillace said.

"After much begging and talking to customer service reps, we finally got them to hook up to our house," she said.

She called it a gamechanger but said not everyone will be able to take advantage of it.

“Now my parents are my neighbors. We share a driveway," Shillace said. "I can literally walk out my front door and walk 400 feet down to their house, but they aren’t able to get high speed internet.”

Even if families have the ability to connect to a fiber line, cost may be prohibitive, she said.

“Even if the internet is available, I would imagine that there’s many families that just simply can’t pay for it," Shillace said.

According to Sen. Sherrod Brown’s office, the money through the Appalachian Regional Commission will provide high speed internet to 90 businesses and almost 3,000 residents in Ashtabula County. Nearly $9 million total will be going to communities in Appalachia and Northeast Ohio. That includes Tuscarawas County, where more than $1 million will be used to construct and equip six fixed wireless broadband telecommunication towers. The towers will serve more than 10,000 households, more than 200 businesses and 19 communities.

The grants are through the commission's Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization Initiative. The money will not only support broadband expansion but also workforce training initiatives and economic development, according to Brown's office. In Tuscarawas County, this includes an online education platform that will offer customized learning and career assistance to more than 900 students over three years.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.