Gazette column: Lack of broadband access is leaving many people behind

NOTE: This column appeared in the Nov. 8, 2020 print edition of the Chillicothe Gazette and its digital edition.

In my time as the President/CEO of the Chillicothe Ross Chamber of Commerce, I have seen how important it is for employers to be able to hire the skilled workers they need to help their organizations and our community grow. As a member of ReadyNation, I am part of a network of business leaders who support smart policies that put kids on the right track early in life, so that they can reach adulthood with the skills that our economy demands.

Right now, we aren’t hitting that mark. Research shows that children who start out behind often stay behind.  The educational attainment and employment levels of their parents are often major determining factors of a child’s starting point but establishing exactly how and why some children start behind is a complex question.

One significant piece of that puzzle is a so-called “digital divide.”  Especially at a time when remote learning is more important than ever, a major barrier to academic and employment success is the lack of a broadband connection. This digital divide leaves children behind their more connected peers in school, and it makes distance learning impractical for working adults without access. More than 300,000 households, representing close to one million Ohioans, currently lack reliable broadband access.

The future workforce and economy of Ohio depend on our state equipping all students with the skills and credentials they need. Approximately 65 percent of Ohio jobs will require a postsecondary degree, credential or certificate; yet, fewer than 50 percent of Ohio adults have reached this level of attainment. Broadband access is a key component to delivering educational resources to meet this goal while also opening up communities to greater employment opportunities. ​​

Addressing the digital divide became a more pressing matter during the COVID-19 pandemic. Students have had to rely more on online learning resources, and employers and workers are doing more work remotely now than ever before. A lack of broadband access leaves behind masses of Ohioans, including many here in Ross County.

How widespread is the problem? Recent research reveals that Ohio is seventh in the nation in the number of K-12 students who lack adequate internet connection to participate. There are 500,000 children (29 percent) without adequate internet connection and 402,000 children (24 percent) without adequate devices. Twenty-three percent of students who lack adequate internet access in Ohio are Black, Hispanic, or Native American.

Locally, Horizon is doing great work throughout Southeast Ohio to address these barriers, but they can’t reach every home or business profitably, nor should they be expected to. Extension of utilities into sparsely populated areas has always been a time-consuming and expensive effort undertaken with government support.

Fortunately, there are solutions. The DeWine-Husted Administration has launched the Broadband Ohio initiative, which seeks to identify the areas of need and determine the best way to proceed. The most recent data detailing broadband service in Ohio reveal that Ohio lacks access in low-population and rural parts of the state. Going forward, the state must identify opportunities to fill these gaps and ensure all Ohioans have access to high-speed internet.

The legislature has an opportunity to respond to this need. House Bill 13 will help bridge the digital divide. We know that the broadband shortage often stems from a low return on infrastructure investment for broadband providers. This bill will allow the state to work with service providers to defray the costs associated with expansion to areas with lower population density. Studies show that Ohio broadband coverage ranks near the middle of US states, and we lag behind neighboring states of Indiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Better, more affordable broadband coverage in these other states puts Ohio at a competitive disadvantage.

Further action besides House Bill 13 will be required to ensure coverage and access for all Ohioans, but it’s a significant step in the right direction.

House Bill 13 passed the Ohio House with strong bipartisan majorities and was supported by all House members in our area.  Time is running out for the Senate to take the measure up.  By investing in our students today with House Bill 13, our economy will thrive tomorrow.

Mike Throne is the president and CEO of the Chillicothe-Ross Chamber of Commerce and a member of ReadyNation/Council for a Strong America, a collection of more than 2,600 business executives to promote public policies and programs that build a stronger workforce and economy.