Economic Development

Lack of Internet Access Hurts Mahoning County Economy

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – More than one in three — 37% — of households in Mahoning County lack a fixed broadband connection – a statistic for concern, but not the one that most alarmed participants in a roundtable Monday.

That distinction went to the 61% of households with children of high school age or younger without access because they deem it too expensive, according to the study by Connected Nation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for increased access to the internet.

Earlier this year, Connected Nation, through its Connected Community Engagement program and in partnership with local leaders, formed the Youngstown and Mahoning County Broadband Team. Over the past several months the team has surveyed residents, businesses, schools, libraries, internet service providers and other stakeholders.

The study, conducted in partnership with the Oak Hill Collaborative, Western Reserve Port Authority and Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, was the topic of a roundtable led by U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-6 Ohio, and Connect Ohio, a subsidiary of Connected Nation.

The Oak Hill Collaborative, on the South Side, serves one of the poorest socioeconomic districts in Ohio, noted its executive director, Pat Kerrigan. It has taken a “single-minded approach” to push broadband access, he said.

That need hit home, he said, when students who participate in the collaborative’s Raspberry Pi program were given computers but didn’t take them home because their homes don’t have access to the internet.

“There’s more recognition by leaders about what’s going on,” Kerrigan said. “My concern is the recognition by the people most affected, that they don’t want to do anything about it.”

Where the so-called Digital Divide used to be defined by lack of broadband infrastructure, especially in rural areas, today it is defined by those who have access and those who don’t, a gap Stu Johnson said is increasing. Johnson is vice president, digital works, of Connected Nation and executive director of Connect Ohio.

“Our consumption is growing,” Johnson said. “We’re taking more and more advantage of the internet every day. The haves are getting more and more value. The have-nots are falling more and more behind.”

Unlike rural areas, where absence of infrastructure poses a greater hurdle, 97% of households in Mahoning County have access to 25 Mbps – megabytes per second – internet. That compares to 90% nationwide.

“So while you are above the national averages in terms of access, you are below in terms of adoption,” Johnson stated.

Statewide, 72% of adults subscribe to a home broadband service, according to a separate report Connect Ohio issued Monday. In this survey, 24% of the 2.5 million non-adopters in Ohio cite relevance as a barrier, followed by cost at 20%.

Participants in the roundtable were particularly stuck by households with children in the county, especially in Youngstown, that lag in adoption, an issue that has to be addressed, he said. Income as well as generational barriers could be factors, he said. Such households might not see the value or simply don’t have the money in their budgets.

Executives from ISP companies joined U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson for the roundtable discussion.

Congressman Johnson, who sits on the telecommunications subcommittee of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, said there is “an element of our society” that doesn’t buy into the importance of access to the internet access. “Whatever their reasons are, what we’re trying to do is make sure that everybody has the choice and the ability if they want,” he said.

“Many people don’t really know the power of the internet. And until somebody tells them how that connects their children or their grandchildren to a global economy that will produce economic opportunities for them, they’re not going to know,” the congressman said.

“We know that we have to find a way to get these children that don’t have access to the internet access,” added John Moliterno, executive director of the port authority.

Connect Ohio’s Johnson noted that packages the ISPs provide are within national norms, “so there’s no price gouging going on.”

The difference lies in Mahoning County itself. Its median income is $41,375, compared with $49,429 in Ohio and $53,889 nationally.

Lack of infrastructure is more of an issue in sections of Johnson’s congressional district, made up of several eastern and southeastern Ohio counties. “I’ve still got young people that have to go to a neighboring town to find a Panera Bread or some other business establishment or a public library to be able to get a broadband connection,” he said.

Among the barriers to adoption identified, 61% of household with K-12 children cited “too expensive.” Another 12% said they were dissatisfied with the options available, and 8% cited the lack of a computer. While all those factors are disturbing, Connect Ohio’s Johnson said, they can be more easily addressed than issues such as infrastructure.

“We’ve got to get folks trained so that they can see the value or realize the value [of access the internet]. We’ve got to get them access to discounted computer hardware and we’ve got to get them discounted internet service,” he said. “We can make it happen and we’re going to make it happen. It’s not easy but it’s not complicated, and we can move that needle and save generations.”

Not that infrastructure isn’t an issue in Mahoning County. Gaps exist in communities that include Poland, Jackson and Green townships, the report found.

In addition to the impact poor broadband access has for existing business, the congressman discussed how it affects the ability to attract new businesses such as the ethane cracker proposed for Belmont County. When the polyethylene and ethylene starts flowing out of that plant, the number of textiles and plastics manufacturers that will crop up in the region will be significant, Johnson said.

“But I can tell you I have heard numerous horror stories from communities and from companies that want to come in here,” he continued. Those companies won’t move their executives here because many of the communities “out in the highways and the byways of Appalachia” lack access to the internet or other basic infrastructure.

The port authority probably should take the lead on addressing the infrastructure issues, while Oak Hill will take the lead on digital literacy, in conjunction with the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County, Kerrigan said. The library has been “a great partner in that respect,” he said, in terms of providing classes for seniors, parents and kids. Last year, the library also began lending mobile Wi-Fi devices to patrons to address that aspect of access.

A meeting has been set for Sept. 13 to define a working group to deal with digital literacy, said Sara Wenger, economic development program manager at Eastgate. Participants will include representatives from ISPs, libraries and schools.

Following the meeting, Wenger said she was surprised at the scope of the lack of adoption. Eastgate often uses media tools such as Facebook, Twitter and its own website to convey information, but it might not be reaching as many people as previously believed. “It might make us rethink some of our public engagement, too,” she said.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.