Coronavirus In Ohio: Pandemic Puts 'Magnifying Glass' On Broadband Problems

Apr 24, 2020

With Ohio’s schools closed and lessons moved online for the rest of the academic year, most kids are spending more time on the computer. Millions of Ohioans are working from home.

Tens of thousands are tuning into the daily coronavirus updates from Gov. Mike DeWine, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted and Ohio Department of Health director Amy Acton. The Ohio Supreme Court held oral arguments via videoconference for the first time, while other state business like the House’s coronavirus economic task force is meeting virtually.

Doctors are providing care through telemedicine. And since Ohioans can’t go out, they're socializing online in their spare time.

All of this online usage doesn’t come as a surprise to Michelle Francis of the Ohio Library Association.

“What’s great right now is that of Ohio’s public libraries, our 251 systems, almost all of them have left the WiFi on," Francis says.

Since libraries across the state have closed, however, Ohioans who used to go inside to access the Internet now have to find workarounds.

“We had people sitting in our parking lots at night, kids doing their homework, people communicating with their families online, people trying to apply for jobs online, utilizing the library's WiFi," Francis says.

Some libraries have boosted their WiFi signal to help meet the demand. Many libraries have purchased hot spots that patrons can access with their library cards.

“The coronavirus pandemic has really put a magnifying glass on the challenges that people have with lack of access," says Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, who's in charge of the newly created Broadband Ohio office.

A 2018 U.S. Census report showed 710,000 Ohioans don’t have any access to broadband at home. Some cities have spotty coverage areas, and the terrain in southern Ohio makes it a challenge.

During this pandemic, Husted says internet suppliers have come together with the state to expand service to new customers and make sure existing customers who depend on it can keep it.

“The Connecting America pledge is to not cut anybody off from their internet connectivity during this time frame for non-payment," Husted says. "And there’s also been special deals from some of these companies to provide free internet access for people who didn’t have it."

And the Broadband Ohio initiative has also added hotspots throughout the state where people can go to access internet service for free. Husted says his office plans to use state and federal funds to provide incentives for broadband providers to expand access to areas that have been left behind in the digital age, since there isn’t a market solution otherwise.

“This pandemic makes it very clear that this is no longer a luxury," Husted says. "It is a necessity in the modern world and we need to create the public private partnerships to bring that to reality as quickly as we can to as many people as we can."

And with the possibility that offices, schools and universities might be only online for the next few months, the pressure is on the state and those providers.