Broadband Initiative Wins ‘Connect Ohio’ Award

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – A roadmap to provide free broadband access throughout Mahoning County could be complete as early as May, Sarah Lown said Wednesday.

Two weeks ago, Lown, who is public finance director for the Northeast Ohio Development and Finance Authority, and Pat Kerrigan, executive director of the Oak Hill Collaborative, were informed that their application was among five of the 80 submitted that had been approved by Connect Ohio, which will work with local entities to prepare the blueprint.

“It has been an objective of the Oak Hill Collaborative to create at least for the residents of Youngstown a system, and now with this opportunity we can expand it to everybody in Mahoning County,” Lown said.

The collaborative has been working with Connect Ohio for about a year to improve internet access in the city, Kerrigan said.

“We’re hoping that it will take Youngstown from a postindustrial community to an active participant in the new knowledge economy,” he said.

Project proponents hope to take the blueprint to the Appalachian Regional Commission and other entities for funds to implement the plan, Lown said.

The value of the Connect Ohio study is between $200,000 and $300,000, she said.

Oak Hill’s partners in the effort to expand broadband access include the county, the city of Youngstown and the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County. The library recently began lending mobile hotspot units to patrons and is doubling the number of available units due to demand.

Other community partners are being brought on board to collaborate with Oak Hill, which is the “community champion” of the project, Kerrigan said. “We will be able to help bring everybody together,” he said. Roles of the various partners are still being defined, he said.

The finance authority is the economic development arm of the Western Reserve Port Authority, which applied to Connect Ohio on the collaborative’s behalf. Connect Ohio, a nonprofit organization that promotes internet connectivity throughout the state, required a government entity to apply for its assistance.

The notification that they had received the award came as a surprise to the local officials. “First, we got a ‘Dear John’ letter,” Lown recalled. “Then an hour later they said, ‘Oops, we sent you the wrong letter. You did get it.’ So that was great.”

Kerrigan and Lown spoke with Connect Ohio representatives Wednesday for the first time since being notified of the award to discuss next steps.

The countywide broadband initiative grew out of Oak Hill Collaborative’s effort to expand access throughout the city. The need was illustrated by what was happening following classes it offered to train young people to build and program their own computer, Kerrigan recalled. Several students would ask to leave the computers they built at the collaborative so they could use the internet access there, something they lacked at home.

“They were making these computers that they couldn’t even use,” said Anthony Trevena, executive director of the finance authority.

“That was our ‘ah ha’ moment with respect to broadband,” Kerrigan said. “It brought home the realization that people have limited connectivity, and we thought we could at least inquire what it is we could do to improve that situation.”

The first step will be to analyze the current state of broadband infrastructure in the city and county, Kerrigan said.

“Part of the problem in any community is people don’t talk to each other so they don’t know what’s out there,” he said. Representatives from Connect Ohio will determine existing access and the next steps. The agency will conduct a consumer and business survey “to see what is needed, what is wanted and what will fly,” he added.

Studies show that academic outcomes for families with internet access are higher than for those without, Lown said. “So it’s an important tool to build the capacity of the residents of Mahoning County,” she said.

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