BROOKFIELD TWP., Ohio (WKBN) – Debbie Cratsley can’t do what most people take for granted.
She can’t use her laptop, pay bills online or stream television shows, even after decades of living in her family home.
She said she’s reached out to multiple internet service providers but was told that they don’t offer coverage in her area.
“I do everything from work, you know, because that’s the only way I have. Or my phone, when you’re working on a little screen, it’s so hard to visualize things. I mean, if you’re planning a trip or to buy tickets to a baseball game, you’re working off this tiny little screen, and it’s hard.”
She’s frustrated, and Brookfield Township Trustee Dan Suttles said she isn’t the only one that has no access to internet in the township.
“We look at that as an everyone has it; it’s an obvious utility, such as water and electric, and that’s not the case. We shouldn’t have separate parts of our community that don’t have that service, where the rest of the community does,” he said.
Suttles said he reached out to Spectrum — the internet service provider for the area — years ago about getting internet access in another area: down one side of Obermiyer Road, where 12 households have no access. Right across busy Route 82, neighbors on the other side of the road do have service.
He said he was told at that time that it would cost as much as $28,000 to run Spectrum’s lines across the road, not including to each household.
WKBN spoke to Spectrum more recently and was told the issue in the township is a matter of closing the gap in service areas. A feasibility study is being conducted to determine the cost of bringing service to everyone.
Suttles said he had reached out to Spectrum again recently because as American Rescue Plan funds have become available to the township, trustees were taking a new look at the issue. The funding is being provided by the federal government to address issues that came up during the COVID-19 pandemic. Suttles thought there could be an opportunity to use some of that funding to update broadband infrastructure in the township.
Lack of broadband access isn’t a problem that is just centered in the township, however. Swaths of Trumbull County have internet dead zones, where either access is limited or where service is so slow that it doesn’t reach the Federal Communications Commission’s benchmark for broadband service delivery.
Trumbull County’s Planning Commission has been working on the issue since 2017, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and people were forced to work from home, officials discovered just how widespread the problem was.
“It was a real struggle, and people weren’t able to do it, along with kids going to school virtually. If you’re living in a rural area that has no service whatsoever, your kid can’t go to school, and that’s unacceptable. And it got to the point where I think everybody started to realize, this isn’t just a convenience problem; it’s a necessity, anymore,” said Nicholas Coggins, assistant director of the Trumbull County Planning Commission.
A study commissioned by the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments found nearly 40,000 homes in the region had no internet access while the region has witnessed a nearly 10 percent increase in self-employment, which usually correlates with home-based employees.
That study cited stories of people traveling to the public library in order to apply for jobs and students completing their homework at fast food restaurants in order to have access to high-speed connectivity — a problem that was amplified during the pandemic, when some schools couldn’t even move to remote learning.
Brookfield Local Schools Superintendent Toby Gibson said as they moved to virtual learning, they had to accommodate students that didn’t have access to the internet.
“We purchased hot spots because we realized when school started, that there were families in the community that didn’t have access to Wi-Fi, or their internet capabilities were limited as far as signal capacity,” he said.
When some funding was made available to the district to increase broadband access, district officials were able to purchase Wi-Fi antennas to turn the football stadium into a hotspot. Gibson said some students then drove to the parking lot in order to do their schoolwork.
There is work being done to find a regional solution, but it’s not a quick job and it isn’t cheap.
The Trumbull County Planning Commission has partnered with the Eastgate Council of Governments, along with Mahoning and Ashtabula counties, on a project described by Coggins as the “Middle Mile Backbone.”
The idea is to install a high-speed fiber line along nearly 100 miles of Route 11, from Lake Erie to the Ohio River, and then build off of that down the major highways. It wouldn’t give service to people like Cratsley immediately, but it is expected to give internet service providers the means to reach people in more rural areas that they weren’t able to before.
“In Trumbull, we want to get down the major routes in each township to help make it easier for internet service providers to either lease or utilize lines that are built out to get to the residents and businesses of Trumbull County so that those unserved and underserved areas can receive service,” Coggins said.
There are multiple steps in the process. First, a feasibility study was conducted to pinpoint the problem areas. That study began in November 2020 and was finished in June 2021.
Coggins said this study showed that the top of the county had the most unserved and underserved residents. “Underserved” is defined as broadband speeds of less than 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads.
But middle portions of the county — near Mosquito Lake and in other locations — were completely untouched by internet access.
There were also some interesting findings. While areas with lower population densities had less broadband accessibility, three local communities were among the “Worst Connected Communities” in the state with populations over 5,000 — Youngstown (2nd); Warren (5th) and Niles (32nd).
And, despite the presence of Youngstown, the most urban area in the study, Mahoning County still has the lowest median broadband download speed among the counties, according to the Purdue Center for Regional Development’s 2020 Digital Divide Index.
WKBN reached out to several internet service providers about these issues, specifically in Brookfield Township. Several companies confirmed that the township just isn’t in their coverage area, and some commented on the challenge of servicing such an area.
“Sparsely populated areas are difficult for any communications provider to serve due to the costs of building and maintaining the network infrastructure. We’re always looking at ways to expand or enhance our broadband services, which includes working closely with policymakers on creative public-private partnerships that encourage broadband investment and bring high-speed internet services to more homes and businesses,” said Mark Molzen, global issues director for Lumen, formerly CenturyLink, in an emailed statement.
The company declined to talk further about the potential costs and details of such an expansion.
As far as the “Middle Mile Backbone” project, the next phase is to complete a preliminary engineering analysis to determine the particulars and total cost, which is expected to exceed $15 million.
The hope is that an organized regional effort will be more apt to garner state or federal funding.
Coggins stressed that the project isn’t to compete with private industry.
“As a government agency, we’re not trying to become an internet service provider, and that’s not the goal,” he said. “We just want to be able to help get the lines to people that either don’t have any or have limited amount so that it’s more affordable for the existing internet service providers to provide internet access to those individuals and those businesses.”
There is some work already underway on upgrades designed to bring the area up to speed.
The Eastgate Regional County of Governments received $1.45 million in Oct. 2020 for the SMART2 Network program, installing over 10 miles of fiber conduit in downtown Youngstown as the first step toward establishing a broadband network that can support businesses, healthcare, education and residents.
The feasibility study cited this project as a means to spur further development by building off of the Route 7 network.
Cratsley, who doesn’t know what it’s like to have internet in her home, is looking forward to any solution that can be reached but says it can’t come fast enough.
“I think in the year 2022, it’s about time, you know, you get modernized with the rest of the world,” she said.