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Connectivity Desert rural OhioANS without Broadband work to keep up with modern demands

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.

Libraries in Southeast Ohio are gathering places for people of all generations to study, communicate and work. Amesville has a population of just under 200 people and cannot support a library, but the Athens County Library System has provided a community hotspot for its residents.

According to a 2018 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) report, over 24 million Americans lack access to broadband. "Broadband" is defined as 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download speed and 3 Mbps upload. One megabit equals 1/8 megabyte, and it can be transmitted via satellite, cable or DSL wires. Almost a third of Ohioans still lack access to broadband, and most of them live in rural areas where it is more expensive for providers to expand. Among the most jarring statistics of limited connectivity in Southeast Ohio are Athens County at 36 percent not connected, Meigs County at 60 percent not connected and Harrison County at 85 percent not connected.

Nick Tepe, director of Athens County Public Libraries, works in the Nelsonville Library. He purposefully keeps Wi-Fi on 24/7 in all the local libraries, so people can come after hours to work remotely from their vehicles.

Tepe explains how the printing press led to a greater flow of ideas through the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. From these events were born ideas that are still influential today. This spread of information through the printing press is not unlike how ideas are carried instantaneously through the modern-day internet. But, for decades Appalachians have faced a stigma of being poor, uneducated and unsophisticated. Although many factors reinforce these stereotypes, limited broadband inhibits their ability to access information that could lead to education and economic development.

As seen in the monthly usage graph, almost 50 percent of this library’s Wi-Fi usage is after it closes. (Graph produced by the Athens County Public Libraries)
Maggi Gifford and her grandson Hunter Blosser, 13, park outside the Glouster Library to use the Wi-Fi. They have satellite at home, but it’s too slow to rely on, so every Sunday they work here for about an hour. Gifford writes for the Morgan County Herald and Hunter catches up on social media.

While companies have the ability to build the infrastructure to expand broadband access, there is little financial incentive to do so. When local residents call providers asking for service, the companies usually respond that it would be a financial loss for them to lay fiber or to build a tower in an area with only a handful of users. However, in a society where most information is instantaneous, people who cannot easily access that information live at a disadvantage. Some people, including Athens County Mayor, Steve Patterson, believe that broadband should be the “fourth utility.”

chapter one | STUDENTS PUSH AN EXTRA MILE

Elijah Byrd, 16, studies with his cellphone while his half-brother, Steven Andrew James Smith, 9, and grandmother, Cheryl Rutter, relax nearby in their home. Byrd often alternates between researching on his phone using data and typing on his Chromebook that doesn't get internet at home.

“For Christmas I do really hope, if there’s a Santa out there, I want internet,” says Elijah Byrd, 16, a junior at Federal Hocking High School. His grandparents have already promised him some Christmas money, and “I’m gonna go for internet,” Byrd says. “I need it. I’m tired of this.” His mother can’t afford to spend $100 a month on internet every month, so his other grandmother buys him a $55 unlimited data card every month.

He and his classmates receive Chromebooks for the year, and while they cannot surf the web without internet, they are able to access Google docs offline. For a recent journalism paper, Byrd researched a website that did not have a mobile version. He flipped his phone to read the font larger, but it did not work, so he had to scroll the screen back and forth to read each line one at a time. He gave up in frustration and turned in the paper with minimal research done.

Byrd used to live in Athens, Ohio, where he had connection, but when his mother lost their home, they were desperate for a place to live. They moved into a trailer in Millfield, Ohio. The trip from his new house to high school would typically take a driver 30 minutes, but it takes Byrd over an hour because his commute includes two separate carpools and two buses. This semester he has stayed at school for ten hours a day—eight for classes and two for an internship where he works with younger students in gym and dance.

Byrd carries girlfriend Isis Mayle, 17, across his yard to his house. They embrace as they re-tell the story of how they met, broke-up and tearfully got back together. Mayle is a senior who goes to the same high school, but she gets adequate connection at her home in Stewart, Ohio.

Because Byrd doesn't have a driver's license yet, his only option is to work at home, and this semester he has managed to complete online homework by using his phone data. He is nervous for the heavier class load next semester and will have to choose between continuing this inefficient cycle of researching on his phone and typing on his Chromebook, or staying in town even later to complete assignments. “I don’t want to fail. If I miss one day I’m going to be so far behind already. That’s how Federal Hocking is – you miss one day you’re behind." Two of his friends without phones already stay late after school.

"If there's a Santa out there I want internet."

It is lunch break at Federal Hocking High School, but instead of eating in the cafeteria with friends, Suzi Cogar, a 16-year-old junior of Stewart, Ohio, sits in an empty classroom doing homework. She hurries to finish before her next classes, after which she will head home where there is no internet.

Suzi Cogar, 16, a sophomore, stands for a portrait at the Athens Public Library where she sometimes studies. Next semester, her science and geometry assignments will be increasingly online, so she hopes to get a job to afford gas for the 20-minute drive to the Athens Library.
"Last year my grades kinda slipped a little bit because I kinda gave up because I was getting frustrated."
For the past year-and-a-half, Cogar has done homework during the lunch hour at Federal Hocking High School because she does not get any internet at home.
Part of the student newspaper, The Shield, is seen in the same journalism classroom where Cogar and Byrd have class. Their school has students from preschool through eighth grade, and this class includes middle and high school students.

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.

“Last year my grades kinda slipped a little bit because I kinda gave up because I was getting frustrated,” she says. At home she alternates between doing research on her phone and typing on her Chromebook that lacks data capability. Her data phone bill is just over $100 a month.

Even though Federal Hocking students are given Chromebooks with access to Google Docs offline, they are unable to use them to research the web.

“I realized that this year I need to step up and actually try my hardest, and no matter what, get decent grades,” she explains. If her grades improve sufficiently, she may be eligible for the competitive technical college during her last two years of high school.

chapter two | INTERGENERATIONAL SETBACKS

Greg Hall, a closed captioner for broadcast television, practices Bluegrass music with his daughter Libby Hall, 13, who hopes to pursue music professionally. They get barely enough internet for Greg to work from home, so his daughter and wife often drive into town to finish their work.

The florescent lights glare on the earth-green cubicles clumped together in the corner of an academic building at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. It is a rainy Sunday afternoon, and Juanita Hall and her daughter Libby could be comfortable at home, but they have work to do. Juanita, a graduate student and American Sign Language instructor, is perched at her computer as her hands seem to dance. Because she is deaf, she records a video for her online homework. Beside her, Libby works on her eighth-grade science homework while munching on Wendy’s fries and slurping a Frosty. They drove 30 minutes from their home in Pomeroy, Ohio, to squeeze into Juanita's cubicle and access broadband. Her husband, Greg, is a closed captioner for broadcast television. He pays for 2 megabits of upload speed and 1 download, but rarely gets that much, so what he does get, he uses for his job.

Working from home is not an option for Greg because his gear is too wired up to transfer. He acknowledges that internet companies don’t make much money in rural areas, but he hopes a compromise that both provides rural connectivity and makes companies profitable can be reached. “It has become a necessity of life now just because of the way our society functions,” he says. “It’s just as vital as a phone or electricity.”

chapter three | LONELINESS WITHOUT CONNECTION

Bill Krotzer moved back to Ohio from California, to care for his sister with breast cancer. After he bought a house and moved in, he discovered that he cannot get internet. A month later, his sister died.

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.

An old photo of Bill Krotzer and his sister, Ann Krotzer-Myers, is visible beneath plastic from boxes of retrieved memories from his basement. “I have her DNA, so I'll always have her with me,” he says.

He is too drained emotionally and financially to move back. His street in Athens has similarities to Fresno: both have twelve houses with little traffic and friendly neighbors. But socially, this haven of peace feels isolated without broadband. “I didn’t even think about not having it [Wi-fi],” he says. “It’s like water.” Back home, he flourished with 60 megabits of speed – an invisible window into the world of connectivity.

A couple times a week Krotzer drives to the Athens or Albany Libraries to connect to their broadband. Krotzer neither games nor streams, but he is impulsive. He is reading a book and stumbles on something he wants to research further. He eats a snack and wants to know its nutritional value. He decides to paint and wants to Google color schemes. During the midterm elections he wants to receive live results.

He worked for the IRS for 45 years, but it was just a job. His passion is admiring, researching and collecting art, and he can no longer research it the way he used to. Recently, he saw a photo of an untitled sculpture on a local news station, and, determined to find the name of it, he called several numbers but reached automated tellers and line transfers. He gave up, put it on his to-do list, and the next time he went to the library he found the name in seconds.

"I didn’t even think about not having it – It’s like water.”
Krotzer and Perez look out on the first snowfall in the new Athens, Ohio house.

Once or twice a week he drives a couple miles to the Albany Library to catch up on correspondence and research. Back in California, he signed up for paperless statements sent to his email, but he hesitates to open them at the library because the connection is not secure. He received an email notification asking if he wanted to opt out of a service, but by the time he saw the email, the deadline had past and he had to jump through multiple hoops to eventually opt out.

Warm lights inside Krotzer’s home glow against the winter sky. Every morning he wakes up early, walks his dog, Perez, makes breakfast and watches the sunrise above his small pond.

Stacks of books on painting, cooking, paper airplanes, spirituality and how-to-play-the-guitar line his office. “I’m like a squirrel. I’m packing away for the winter because there’s going to be no work here for me to do, and I’m going to go nuts.”

His new unconnected life demands flexibility and patience. He used to participate in group chats with his cousins, but now when one of them sends a link to a website, he cannot open it until he returns to the library. “I live to drive somewhere to visit my family!” he exclaims. “Oh boy, Wi-fi! Am I addicted or what?”

chapter four | TO BRIDGE THE BUSINESS GAP

The dairy farm, Snowville Creamery, is hoping to streamline their process of storing inventory by uploading to the Cloud but cannot without faster internet speeds. For now, they hand count and manually enter every order into their system.

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.

Todd Allen, left, a Snowville employee of six years, spends about an hour each day counting inventory as he loads orders into boxes and onto trucks. Heather Fuston, right, the marketing director of six years, can work from home but often must come into the office because her AT&T hotspot is not sufficient.

“It’s pretty bad,” Heather Fuston, the marketing director of Snowville, says of her hotspot. She manages their social media, but her home speed is even slower than that of Snowville. When videos simply will not upload, so she often must wait until she goes to the office two days a week or to the library with her children in tow. This inefficiency hinders production. “Small farms and good food is really important to me. I fit right in here,” she says. “With that comes the inconvenience of no internet...It's so frustrating.”

The Snowville Creamery desktop computers operate at an average of six to 10 Mbps download speed, but Fuston's laptop gets barely three Mbps of download, which is still faster than her AT&T hotspot at home.

Nonexistent access to the Cloud is the major setback. Most businesses, small and large, have the luxury of scanning their inventory and uploading it to a Cloud based server that automatically communicates with all on and offsite departments. Snowville doesn’t have this option because they do not get enough megabits. Currently, the orders department prints off packing slips, sends them to the dock, hand counts each item of product, loads them into boxes and onto pallets, and then verbally communicates with the next department in line.

Without the Cloud, they use Microsoft Access, an offline database in which they manually enter the orders; however, this year Microsoft released their final server for small businesses, and after eight to 10 years it will be obsolete. When that time comes, Tapan Alam, Snowville engineer of six years, says the only option for them will be to build their own storage program or simply hope that working 5G will have spread farther out.

Improving their inventory process is crucial because hand-counting every carton of milk and yogurt is error prone, especially as they grow. “We’d have trucks loaded with the wrong product, or not enough product, or too much product,” says Alam. “That’s probably a bigger deal than the day-to-day, which I think we’re used to at this point." He says that the biggest limitation to not having a Cloud service is that they are “in limbo” not being able to control their response to their company’s growth.

chapter five | SOLUTIONS, FOR SOME

Catherine Sitko reacts in frustration as it takes minutes to load a single webpage. She recently retired from being a Graphic Design and Production Specialist for Alden Library at Ohio University and says she misses the broadband she had there daily.
"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.

Tim Traxler and Catherin Sitko's tiny house where they lived for 36 years and raised a son is seen at left, and the current house they are building is seen at right.

In 2009, they got their first internet connection through a satellite that worked until 2017. Traxler owns two businesses: Water Tank Sales that sells water storage tanks and ICF Building Products that provides insulted concrete forms to make energy efficient exterior walls. Until she retired, Sitko, who worked at Alden Library at Ohio University, would often remain after hours to email photos or documents for him when the connection at home failed.

“One day we just didn’t have any internet,” explains Sitko. “And then another day went by and another day…and Tim’s trying to run a business!” Their Exede provider switched ownership to Viasat, and they lost internet. The two of them contacted several local providers including Verizon, AT&T, Frontier and Hughesnet to solve their lapse in connectivity. None helped. They went back to Viasat, who said that in order to have a clear signal on their property, they must now cut down two of their 80-foot trees. For most people this would cost $2,000, but Traxler fortunately had the means to cut them down himself.

Sitko takes a walk on her property to visit the grave of a cat she and her husband recently buried. Every Wednesday morning, she and several of her neighbors take a walk and often chat about their latest broadband complications but how grateful they are to live in a beautiful area of the country.

After the trees were removed, they called Viasat back. Viasat said those were the wrong trees.

For Tim, unnecessarily destroying 60-year-old trees "was like cutting off his arm," said Sitko. They became frustrated because they used to have internet, so why could they not again?

Sitko pauses while waiting for a webpage to open.

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.

Traxler helps decorate their first Christmas tree in over a decade. They never had one while living in their tiny house.

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 antennas they eventually got from Viasat stand on their property near their house.

They now pay for 25 Mbps but only get about 15 Mbps. While that is still not broadband, it is faster than both Greg Hall’s and Snowville Creamery’s connections. Sitko still relies on her phone most of the time. They still order Netflix DVDs because streaming is not an option, but they were prepared for trade-offs when they moved here. “I’ve adjusted,” she says.

in CONCLUSION

Connect Ohio 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.

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.

The documentary “Don’t Pass Go” is screened at the Athens Public Library, and it is about a community in North Carolina that built their own broadband fiber that was successful, but then internet providers sued them for unfair competition. Those same providers refused to ever offer service for the community.

In an op-ed for USTelecom, Jonathan Spalter and Shirley Bloomfield wrote that the private business model of broadband expansion is only successful in densely populated areas. Spalter is the CEO of USTelecom, The Broadband Association, that represents providers such as AT&T, Verizon and CenturyLink, and Bloomfield is the CEO of NTCA, The Rural Broadband Association, that represents almost 850 small ISPs. They acknowledge that much of rural America has limited connectivity, and it comes down to the factors of affordability, accessibility and availability. The cost of laying fiber for only a few consumers is not stable, so they are asking for the government to assist beyond investments of the private sector.

Efforts to contact local providers were unsuccessful; however, Intelliwave Broadband is one of the few services that prides themselves in reaching rural communities in Southeast Ohio. “Every once in a while, things happen,” says Lauren Cooper, director of residential sales and marketing, “Sometimes there’s a delay and we feel terrible about it...But we’re completely transparent with our service when other providers aren’t.” Currently, they are building a tower in Albany and have plans to continue expansion.

If this lapse in connectivity could be resolved, perhaps more businesses would be willing to come to Appalachia, and more jobs could be created. This would feed back into the initial investment. “We’ll have to work together if they don’t want rural America to be second-class citizens,” Goosman, the mayor of Amesville says, “if they want everybody to excel in business and education.”

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