YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Referring to the Internet as a utility, like water or electricity, makes Steve Kristan cringe.
“It’s more than a utility,” says Kristan. “It is necessary from this sense. But it’s more powerful. »
The Broadband Coordinator for the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments compares the “information highway” to the waterways and interstate highways that allowed commerce to flourish in years past. Whether it’s applying for jobs, paying bills, or accessing support programs, internet access has become a necessity of everyday life.
“I don’t see any way to find a job now without going online,” says Kristan. “If you’re in your 20s, 30s, or even 40s and looking to change careers, you need to be online.”
Broadband, however, is anything but a level playing field. And those who are not connected are left behind.
According to a broadband feasibility study published by Eastgate in June 2021, people who cannot afford adequate internet service use free extended Wi-Fi outside of public libraries, catering restaurants fast or big retailers so students can finish homework or adults can apply for jobs. As the pandemic forced these establishments to temporarily close, it eliminated a source of Wi-Fi for these people.
The study found that sparsely populated areas experience less broadband availability, further affected by a lack of choice or competition between providers.
Mahoning Valley organizations have made strides in recent years to connect residents to affordable internet and hardware. But bridging the digital divide locally goes deeper than connectivity, hardware and even digital literacy – though those issues remain.
“On the one hand, we have made good progress in connecting more and more people at a cheaper rate,” says Patrick Kerrigan, director of the Oak Hill Collaborative. “But I also think the problem is that the pace of digitization is only increasing phenomenally.”
Youngstown is the second-worst connected city in the state and the 44th worst in the nation, according to Kerrigan. Obstacles include a lack of internet connection or a connection that is too weak to use, as well as a lack of hardware – or insufficient familiarity with the hardware and software to take advantage of it.
These barriers are likened to a three-legged stool: broadband availability, affordability, and digital literacy. During the pandemic, organizations rolled out several programs to meet these needs.
Last year, the Federal Communications Commission launched the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which offered qualified people up to $50 off their monthly Internet bills.
In January, the EBB was replaced by the $14.2 billion Affordable Connectivity Program. Qualified applicants who are 200% or more below the federal poverty level and participating in a low-income program may receive up to $30 off their monthly Internet bills.
Oak Hill helped residents apply to both programs, though Kerrigan didn’t see many people enroll. “I wish it was a line out the door,” he says.
Kerrigan hopes that more CPA promotion will attract more applicants.
To ensure residents have reliable hardware, Oak Hill works with refurbishers to prepare donated laptops, notebooks, and desktops for sale. He recently refurbished 20 laptops with Windows 10 and sold them for $99 each.
the Youngstown and Mahoning County Public Library lends Wi-Fi hotspots and iPads to customers with a library card, says strategic communications manager Maggie Henderson. There has been a constant two to three week waiting list for hotspots since 2016.
“The majority of people go back to the waitlist after they’ve been fired,” Henderson says.
With 1,615 rentals last year, up 13.4% year-over-year, hotspots were the most popular item streamed in 2021, even on books, she said. At the height of the pandemic, when the library was forced to close its buildings, Wi-Fi accessibility was extended to the parking lot.
In October 2021, the library received $171,122 from the Electronic Connectivity Fund to purchase new mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, iPads, and necessary data plans. The library currently has around 190 4G or 5G hotspots and 150 iPads.
To maintain privacy, contributor usage is not tracked. Anecdotally, librarians report that patrons use on-site computers to access government services, health information, enroll in distance learning courses, or start small businesses, according to Henderson.
While the pandemic has brought digital divide issues into focus, it has also impeded progress in some ways, Kerrigan says. Oak Hill is offering introductory computer classes in English and Spanish for residents, but was unable to hold in-person classes due to social distancing restrictions.
Even though restrictions are lifted and classes are scheduled, some people remain hesitant, he says. This features a catch-22. To reach more people for training, organizations needed to put them online. But some of the Oak Hill voters aren’t online or can’t do it very well, he says.
At the public library, in-person training programs resumed Feb. 14 after being paused in January, Henderson says. Programs range from using Microsoft Office to individual device tutorials.
“They may have difficulty with email or online applications for jobs, unemployment claims, health insurance claims, Medicaid or Medicare claims,” she says. “They don’t know how to upload or attach documents to emails or websites.”
The library’s new Northstar digital learning program teaches these fundamental tasks, she says. And the library’s digital resource specialists are exploring other training opportunities.
“This remote learning, this remote working – it’s not going away,” Henderson says. “So the more we can help people find opportunities to learn new skills and develop those skills, that’s a good thing.”
Seeing the value of the internet is a fourth leg of the stool that experts say needs to be addressed.
“Maybe they can afford it. They might be able to have it at home,” says Kristan of Eastgate. “But they just don’t see the value in it.”
To educate these people about technology, Oak Hill taught residents to use devices for the things they love, like downloading Bible mobile apps to their phones and computers, Kerrigan says. Classes have been extended to other apps such as Skype so residents can talk to their grandchildren during the pandemic.
For younger residents, Oak Hill introduced them to programming through video game development classes, getting them interested in computer science, he says. Kerrigan is looking to hire a digital education coordinator this year “so we can standardize and expand our program offerings,” he says.
The rapid adoption of telehealth by healthcare providers is a pressing issue. Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services reported that the share of Medicare visits made by telehealth in 2020 increased to 52.7 million, from about 840,000 in 2019, particularly in behavioral health care. .
In an editorial entitled “Can we better define what we mean by bridging the digital divide? ” published in December by The Hill, Nicol Turner Lee writes that people who are not online face systemic societal inequalities with trends such as telehealth, online vaccination planning and online job applications. . She argues that policy makers must also consider poverty, geographic and social isolation when trying to bridge the digital divide.
This can apply to urban and rural residents, as well as older adults, who are particularly vulnerable to increased reliance on telehealth, Kristan says. With older people needing more medical care than younger people, training them in telehealth is an even greater prerogative.
As Eastgate and Oak Hill work to raise awareness of telehealth, the problem is that it requires fast internet speeds, Kristan says. For residents with slower speeds or who don’t have internet access, telehealth leaves them behind.
In its Broadband Feasibility Study, Eastgate offered 10 recommendations, including short- and long-term goals, to improve broadband Internet access and spark community-level conversations about broadband connectivity.
One recommendation is to adopt public policies to encourage broadband deployment, Kristan says, as a “dig it once” policy. “If the city or county is renovating a road or digging a road, let’s consider putting a conduit in” and making it available to new suppliers, he says. Bringing more providers into a market can lower prices while improving services and reliability, he says.
Kristan would also like to see a local innovation district, similar to what has been done in Cleveland, Columbus and Canton, he says. Cities with historic buildings can designate Innovation Districts to take advantage of “special tax manipulations”, which can be reinvested.
“It’s a great way to build an incubator accelerator,” says Kristan. Eastgate is in talks with Youngstown for such a project.
Closing the digital divide and improving broadband will allow local workers to compete nationally for remote work, Kristan said. Likewise, it will broaden the pool of candidates for Mahoning Valley businesses.
“The majority of internet traffic that goes from New York to Chicago or from New York to LA goes through northeast Ohio,” he says. “We can learn to leverage this more so we can have access to the internet and people here to work anywhere.”
For any of these suggestions to work, state and federal governments are realizing that they need to support vendors to invest in building this infrastructure, he says.
There’s “a lot of funding available for internet accessibility,” says Kristan. Eastgate has worked to help local governments apply for these funds.
Programs like BroadbandOhio help offset the cost for providers to install fiber in less densely populated areas, which would typically make it difficult for the provider to justify the expense, Kristan says.
As infrastructure is built and government entities roll out programs to connect people, organizations like Eastgate and Oak Hill need to drive adoption and training.
“There is always a gap. There is still a gap,” says Kristan. “We are not going to close this gap in six months or a year. But we are making progress. »
Pictured: Maggie Henderson shows off the digital devices that the Youngstown Public Library and Mahoning County loan to patrons.
Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.