Nick Tepe, director of Athens County Public Libraries in Southeast Ohio, often drives into the Nelsonville Library parking lot to see it dotted with cars occupied by passengers lit up by the light of their laptops and cell phones. Tepe intentionally keeps the Wi-Fi on 24/7 so that local students or professionals can study, work or simply catch up on social media. 50 percent of the total Wi-Fi usage at the Nelsonville and Glouster libraries is during closed hours. For many people, this is their only option for connectivity.
She spends 30 minutes in a tutoring classroom where she quietly works in the back. If that is insufficient time, she goes to another empty classroom before the bell rings for the next class. On some days she spends 15 minutes eating with friends before dashing off to study, and on other days she eats while studying. “You get used to it,” she says as she shrugs her shoulders. Sometimes she submits incomplete work.
Bill Krotzer, back in Ohio after 28 years in Fresno, California, sits on his house floor petting his dog, Perez. His entryway leads to a living room dotted with cozy lamp lights and warm rugs. A wide window frames a backyard pond surrounded by a green expanse under a dull sky with clouds that promise impending snow. As he strokes Perez, he looks around his house full of photos and trinkets of past lives and recounts memories of his deceased sister. “I’m sure it will all end up in the trash. That’s the way with memories.”
Krotzer grew up in Tiffin, Ohio, and moved back in 2018 to care for his sister with breast cancer. “My soul is tattered and torn from living in California and all the noise and pollution,” he says. In search of peace, quiet and quality time with his sister, he returned to Ohio. One month later, his sister died.
Nestled between idyllic meadows and rolling hills in Pomeroy, Ohio, is the dairy farm, Snowville Creamery. In ten years it has grown, and the milk, yogurt and cheese products can now be purchased at a Whole Foods 365 store in Columbus, Ohio and a Whole Foods Market in Philadelphia; however, as it prospers, green pastures and grass-fed cows are not enough. It will also need broadband.
The 15 computers share an average of six to 10 megabits of wireless data from Intelliwave, a local internet provider. On days with 10 megabits, it’s fast enough to write emails, browse the internet and function at a basic level, but on days with six megabits or less, it’s almost unusable. During these times, everyone spends an extra hour or more waiting on the internet to load, which means they clock more hours that ultimately cost the company. Back-ups are always postponed until the evening because they would slow everyone down during the day. Occasionally, their coverage completely fails, and they rely on back-up data from another provider, Frontier.
"One day we just didn’t have any internet, and then another day went by and another day."
The home of Tim Traxler, 75, and Cathy Sitko, 66, lies several miles down Highway 550, around a mile-and-a-half curvy road that feels like an endless driveway and finally up a steep gravel path. Deep in the woods, their home feels like a safe haven from civilization.
In 1980, as a young couple, they moved to this plot of land and set up a tent equipped with a dresser, a bed and a clothes-drying pole, but no electricity. Without a driveway, they parked on the side of the road and hiked up every day. Five months later, in the middle of winter they became one of the original "tiny house" owners – migrating from the tent to a 14 by 20-foot cabin. For the first three years in the tiny house, they had no electricity or running water, but eventually Traxler helped build the second longest electrical underground line in the area.
After the trees were removed, they called Viasat back. Viasat said those were the wrong trees.
For Tim, unnecessarily destroying trees "was like cutting off his arm," said Sitko. They became frustrated because they used to have internet, so why could they not again?
Finally, three long months later, an independent contractor with Viasat suggested a different location on their property to lay the wire and antennas. “He kinda thought we’ll just drape it across the ground, or we’ll put it through a tree or something.” Traxler disagreed and suggested installing it underground, but the contractor said he was not equipped to do that.
After a lifetime of construction and plumbing, Traxler said he could easily place conduit in the ground, install posts in the concrete and lay the wire himself. He just needed the contractor to install the antennas and hook the wire.
This time, it worked. They re-entered the connected world. “Not everyone could do that,” Traxler says. They acknowledge that they had the knowledge and financial means to essentially build their own network access portal.
The FCC has released maps detailing which counties have Broadband, but they are misleading because connectivity is usually near the center of towns (libraries), but farther out it becomes spotty. In some cases, a house will have connection while the neighbors do not, but the maps report the whole area being connected. Connect Ohio, a nonprofit committed to expanding broadband access, is working to create more updated maps.
The people featured in this story acknowledge that providers must be able to turn a profit, but this does not change the feeling of being left behind. Gary Goosman, mayor of Amesville, Ohio, believes that it will take the federal and state governments working together to solve this lapse in connectivity and profit. During the New Deal era under FDR, many rural Americans did not have electricity until the government stepped in. Companies would not build then for the same reason they do not now – they thought they would not make enough money in sparsely populated areas.
© Liz Moughon