Perry County lacks fast, affordable high-speed Internet

Internet in Perry county is disappointingly slow and expensive compared to the rest of the Ohio.

Lynn Warner just wants faster Internet.

At her home in Noble County, the Caldwell Public Library librarian subscribes to Frontier Communications Corporation’s Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) — a souped-up version of dial-up that relies on bundles of telephone lines to deliver data. She is not located close enough to her provider’s equipment get faster speeds, and competing regional companies do not offer better packages in her area. “I’m too far out,” she says.

Warner is one of the lucky ones. According to a 2014 survey by Connect Ohio, a subsidiary of the nonprofit Internet advocacy group Connected Nation, a majority of Noble County’s 14,645 residents – roughly a third – lack any choice in Internet service.

Slow downloads and limited access

Internet speeds are measured in bits per second, or the amount of information transferred over a fixed period of time. On a typical DSL connection of 500Kbps (0.5Mbps), a four-minute, 4Mb song takes a little over a minute to download. The county’s average connection in the United States was 31Mbps as of September 2014, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the agency of the United States government charged with regulating interstate communications including Internet.

The FCC has long maintained that so-called broadband Internet — connections faster than traditional dial-up – has transformative potential. In its 2010 National Broadband Plan, the agency argued that broadband had a vital role to play in education, health care and small business.

Executive Director of Connect Ohio Lindsay Shanahan says that rural Ohio’s agricultural sector stands to benefit in particular. Farms with broadband can achieve higher efficiency with such technologies as GPS-enabled tractors that fertilize economically soil sensors that shut off valves to prevent overwatering. “There are plenty of opportunities for higher sales and greater production [in] broadband,” she says.

Arguably as important as the applications that Internet enables are the access to information which broadband affords. Noble County very nearly meets the definition of a “media desert” — a geographic locale without access to fresh local news, says Dr. Michelle Ferrier, principal investigator for The Media Deserts Project and Dean of Innovation at the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University. According to the project’s maps, less than 25 percent of the population has access to a newspaper.

The FCC’s plan calls for tens of millions of Americans to gain access to download speeds of at least 100Mbps over the next few years. In Noble County, that vision is far from realized: Connect Ohio reports that only 57 percent of residents subscribe to broadband at home.

In fact, many residents of Noble County rely on Caldwell’s library for fast Internet. “People come here every day to do schoolwork and work and check their e-mail,” Warner says. The library offers six terminal stations and three card catalog computers in addition to free Wi-Fi, which it launched when it upgraded to Time Warner Cable broadband several years ago. “I often see the same people come every day,” Warner says.

Expensive connections and few choices

Affordability is a part of the problem. A combined 27 percent of Noble County residents without broadband cited “expense” as the biggest barrier to subscription, according to Connect Ohio, and a national study by the Pew Research Center found that one out of ten households with incomes less than $30,000 reported having high-speed Internet access versus six out of ten households with incomes less than $100,000 (Noble County’s median household income was $39,500 according to the 2011 United States Census).

Just how expensive is broadband in Noble County? A plan with mobile carrier Sprint, one of the few Internet providers available in the county’s more remote regions, starts at $50 per month. An analogous offering from Verizon Wireless begins at $60, and both plans restrict the amount of data that can be consumed without penalty each month. The least expensive plan offered by satellite provider Hughes Communications, meanwhile, costs $60 per month for 10Mbps, and is also capped. By comparison, 15Mbps cap-free broadband in Columbus, Ohio starts at $35 per month.

Despite the absence of fast, cheap broadband Noble County, the region has not received as much attention as neighboring counties. In 2014, the Athens, Fairfield and Pickaway County Rural Broadband Initiative Project received a $2.2 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish broadband infrastructure. In 2011, Washington County received $100,000 in funding from Ohio’s State Appalachian Development Program to assist in the development of high-speed Internet service.

But that is not to say the situation is not improving. The percentage of current home broadband subscribers, 57 percent, represents an increase from 2008, when just 21 percent in Noble County residents had a high-speed home connection. And in August 2015, major broadband providers CenturyLink, Cincinnati Bell, AT&T, FairPoint Communications, and Windstream Communications accepted $58.5 million in federal funding from the Federal Communication Commission to offer broadband to rural Ohio homes and businesses not currently being served.

The funding will “dramatically alter the broadband landscape in Ohio,” says Shanahan, but not overnight. The plans call for broadband network construction in rural areas over the next six years: 40 percent by the end of 2017, and 100 percent by the end of 2020. And it is not clear whether the Internet providers, which retain the power to choose which regions get broadband first, will prioritize Noble County over Southeast Ohio’s denser, higher-income counties.

For Warner’s part, she anxiously awaits the day when her home plan will be just as fast as the library’s connection. “I mostly want it to download books, actually,” she says. “Right now, it takes forever.”