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Disconnected: Rural Ohio Looks To Legislators To Bring High Speed Internet

Nick Evans
Valerie Rowe and Don Hooper at Ragamuffins coffee shop in Alexandria, Ohio.

Main Street in downtown Alexandria stretches a little more than half a mile along State Route 37. There’s a post office on the corner, a couple churches and a library down the road, and a coffee shop right across the street.

It’s only about 25 minutes outside Columbus, but when it comes to broadband, it feels light years away.

Valerie Rowe works at the coffee shop Ragamuffins, but she works from home part time, too. She explains her family’s internet service is pretty bad.

“Less than great, yes,” she says with a nod and a grin. “Awful would be a good word.”

It’s a common complaint in the area.

Connect Ohio maintains a map broken down by Census blocks showing access to high speed internet all over the state. Just east of Alexandria, there’s string of blocks forming a rough crescent where many households struggle to get 25 megabit per second downloads—the federal benchmark for high speed.

Meanwhile, throughout Columbus, residents can get connections at least twice as fast.

“It’s less than three megabytes,” Rowe says about her connection. “I don’t know what it is. But really, if you really want to get something done, only one person can be on it at a time.

“And it’s really slow, even then," she adds.

For some of Rowe’s neighbors, even that connection is out of reach. The company has told them it’s already at capacity.

A few years ago, one family, the Fragales, tried to take matters into their own hands. Time Warner told Karla Fragale to get residents to place work orders with the company, but nothing came of it. Later when the company became Spectrum, different representatives told her to file a petition.

“Which we did,” Fragale says. “So we sent that in, and now they’re telling us it’s going to be upwards of $66,000 to bring the service to us.”

That’s how much it costs to extend the line just over half a mile. 

Spectrum says there are many factors that contribute to those costs, and they do cover the first $3,000 if a customer chooses to move forward.

Credit Nick Evans / WOSU
Karla, Isabella and Dave Fragale hold a petition that they sent into Spectrum to get high-speed internet. Spectrum said it was already at capacity.

The Fragales moved in about two and a half years ago. They spent two of those years, calling every month, before getting on CenturyLink—the same low bandwidth connection Rowe complains only one person can use at a time. Fragale says it’s better than the satellite connection they had before, but it’s still almost impossible to work from home.

“So I’m driving an hour—one way—just because the internet, pretty much, it doesn’t work,” Fragale says.

They’re not the only ones to get eye-popping quotes. Dianne Pontia has internet access on her street, but a company told her it would cost $30,000 to $35,000 to extend a line about a quarter mile up to her home.

“I think it was $30,000 when we even offered to trench the line,” Pontia says shaking her head. “They were just going to hook the line in up by the road and then hook it up at the house and we would trench the line.”

State Rep. Jack Cera, a Democrat from Bellaire, wants the state to set aside $100 million over the next two years to subsidize high speed internet connections in communities like Alexandria. HB 378, which would create the "Ohio Broadband Development Grant Program," is being considered in the Ohio House Finance Committee.

“Well, what the bill would do is encourage, we would hope, companies to go into the rural parts of Ohio, and even some urban parts of Ohio, to expand broadband capability,” Cera says.

Bellaire hugs the far eastern edge of Ohio—right across the river from West Virginia. Access in Cera’s neighborhood is just fine because a company laid fiber years ago. But he says that as you move away from the river, access gets spotty.

A 2017 Ohio Statestudy puts the number at nearly 1 million residents who can’t get broadband service statewide. Cera says that’s a big obstacle for regions trying to foster local economic growth.

“When you think about the internet today, you think about people that are trying to look for jobs, you think about students that need to have access, you think about people trying to start businesses, and whole parts of the state are being left behind,” Cera says.

The money for Cera’s initiative would come from Ohio’s Third Frontier bond revenue, and private companies, municipalities or non-profits would all be able to apply for grants.

That sounds pretty good to the folks in and around Alexandria, like Diane Pontia.

“Basically, because I’m a champion for rural living and country living,” Pontia says, “So if anything will encourage home businesses, more people’s opportunities to diversify—like I said, maybe if one spouse wants to live in the country but the other is more urban connected, that helps them bridge that gap by bringing them internet, because it seems to be so necessary to so many people these days. Yeah, I would be all for that.”

State lawmakers get back to work in about a week, and Cera’s bill is ready for consideration.

CenturyLink and Spectrum don't hold an official position on Cera's bill. CenturyLink notes it is bringing internet to 47,000 households in Ohio over six years thanks to a federal program called the Connect America Fund. The company is getting almost $100 million over that timeframe to provide speeds of at least 10 megabits per second.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.