Rural Businesses in Ohio Face Limited Broadband Access

By SARAH DONKIN Farm and Dairy
PLEASANT CITY, Ohio (AP) — If you walk into a retail store in southern Ohio, you might see a “cash only” sign sitting in the window. Cash, unlike credit card machines, does not rely on internet access to work. In an area with limited options for high speed internet access, some businesses struggle with credit card machines.

Up until five years ago, M&M Feed Supply, in Guernsey County, was one of those businesses. It had dial-up internet, which allowed them to use the machine, but only in the store where it could be physically connected. This prevented the store from offering drive-through checkout, which the store owners, Darlene and Joe Miser, consider better customer service.

Then, high-speed internet became not a luxury, but a necessity.

The Misers previously drove trucks for TimkenSteel, and when TimkenSteel switched to a system where they dispatched loads for drivers online, requiring drivers to respond within 15 minutes to get the loads, they knew the slow service they’d gotten in the past through satellite internet and hot spots wasn’t good enough anymore.

So, over the last five years, the Misers have spent over $30,000 just to get internet access for their store.

Broadband isn’t cheap for everyone, but expansion could offer nationwide economic benefits. A 2017 study by Ohio State University’s C. William Swank Program in Rural-Urban Policy indicated if all households that do not have broadband access both received and used broadband services, the economic benefits would be $728 million per year.

The Misers have seen some of these benefits, but getting them has been a challenge.

They started their own trucking company in 1995, working from their farm and home in Guernsey County, and added the feed store in 2000. They later bought property and built the physical store they own today in Pleasant City, Ohio. They now have four semi-trucks and four dump trucks, with nine employees between both businesses.

While they no longer work with TimkenSteel, the Misers rely on broadband access to run their credit card machine and phone lines at the store.

“We probably did about $60,000 in credit cards last month alone,” Darlene Miser said.

Darlene worked with Frontier to get a line put in so the store could have high-speed access. She signed a five-year commitment. The agreement required her to have four phone lines and confirmed Frontier’s right to add more customers to the line later.

Darlene pays $553 per month for that high-speed internet, plus more for the phone lines. Overall, her bills for internet and phone access are just under $1,000 per month.

Experts say part of the reason the cost is so high is that it is expensive for providers to build this new infrastructure where it doesn’t exist. If there aren’t enough customers in the area, or if customers aren’t willing to pay high prices, the cost can be prohibitive.

In rural areas, where the population density is lower than in cities, this is a major part of access issues.

Darlene’s internet speed was originally at the high end of the parameters Frontier gave her, it but has been pushed to the low end as more customers have joined the line. Outages have also become more frequent, though she says her service is still “not terrible.”

High-speed internet is an issue for those who work remotely as well. The Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan, released in 2010, estimated increasing telework opportunities could open opportunities for 17.5 million people, particularly homemakers, retirees and adults with disabilities.

Emily Harsh is painfully aware of the problem. She works remotely as a software engineer for Netflix, a job that requires her to have internet access to work.

Harsh pointed out many rural areas like Carroll County are shrinking as people leave to find jobs. She noted while not all companies support remote work, even being able to work from home for a few days can make a longer commute to a larger city less challenging.

“I wanted the kids to understand that having a career like this doesn’t mean you have to leave,” Harsh said.

But access is essential to remote work.

While Harsh has wireless internet at her house, it can be slow at times. When the internet is slow or goes out, she packs up her equipment and heads for the nearest library or McDonald’s.

“It’s definitely the hub,” she said. “My video conferencing at McDonald’s is fabulous.”

When Harsh started having to use McDonald’s for her remote work 12 years ago, she used to get dirty looks from other customers for bringing her laptop along. She speculated they assumed she was playing video games or bringing the computer for some other form of entertainment.

“In the past, it’s been sort of a luxury or sort of equated with entertainment,” Harsh said.

Now, she sees more people at McDonald’s with computers for similar reasons.

“There’s usually a student there, there’s usually a teenager like, wanting to watch YouTube or something . there’s other people working, there’s like, older people maybe like doing shopping or like conducting some kinds of business . maybe they’re into vehicles and they’re searching for a specific auto part or something, they come in there for the internet access,” Harsh said.

The Misers do not have the option to pack up their business and visit the library or a nearby McDonald’s for internet. As her five-year commitment comes to a close at the end of the year, Darlene is worried about what comes next.

“I’m kind of holding my breath,” she said.

Darlene considers internet and phone service an important utility for businesses, just like water and electricity.

“It does affect business growth,” she said. “When you know those services aren’t available, you can’t go in any direction that’s gonna use those . the uncertainty, I guess, is what makes you not be as anxious to add on and grow.”

Pictured at top: Darlene Miser works behind the counter of MM Feed Supply, in Pleasant City, Ohio, on Oct. 30, 2019. The feed supply store added broadband about five years ago to meet business demands. While the addition helped in some ways, speeds have slowed. After spending $30,000 to date for internet, Miser said they are unsure what the future holds when their contract ends. (Sarah Donkin/Farm and Dairy, Salem, Ohio via AP)

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.