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Patchwork Nation: Ohio’s Broadband Availability vs. Affordability

The state of Internet connectivity in the U.S. has been a big story the past few weeks. Officials everywhere from the Federal Communications Commission to Google are looking to improve America’s high-speed networks.

But what exactly do the current networks look like? There’s the rub. Right now, specifics are scarce, although the U.S. government has set aside $350 million for states to create maps of their networks. Those are supposed to be ready by next February.

But some states are already pretty far along in the process of mapping. One in particular, Ohio, has a decent, if not official, measure of access and availability. The people at Connected Nation, a nonprofit public-private partnership, have been working on the maps for Ohio, and they shared their data with Patchwork Nation. (Connected Nation got its data from partner Connect Ohio.)

The message from those numbers? Somebody better be ready to buy many, many miles of fiber for the job ahead.

Ohio is a big, diverse state, and it has eight of Patchwork Nation‘s 12 community types. When we analyzed the data according to the community types, we found some good-sized holes in the broadband net. This was particularly true in areas that are more rural, where homes are farther apart and wiring is more complicated.

Metro and rural

In our analysis, we looked at who has — and who doesn’t have — the opportunity to access broadband, defined by the government as 768 kilobits per second (kbps).

Two of the community types that tend to have the fewest people — the socially conservative “Evangelical Epicenters” and the small-town “Service Worker Centers” — have the least access to broadband overall. About 56 percent of households in Ohio’s two “Evangelical Epicenter” counties have broadband available to them. In the state’s “Service Worker Center” counties, the number is somewhat higher — about 81 percent of households.

Getting all those places wired for broadband won’t be easy. Ohio has 42 “Service Worker Center” counties, and households tend to be scattered throughout them.

But in the other community types in the state, more than 90 percent of the households have access to broadband. The heavily populated and big-city “Industrial Metropolis” counties lead the way, with more than 99 percent of their households having broadband availability. Ohio has three “Industrial Metropolis” counties.

Still, there is work to be done even in the more populous places. For instance, look at the state’s wealthy and populous “Monied ‘Burb” counties. Although some 93 percent of the households there have broadband available to them, this means that about 30,000 homes in the “Monied ‘Burbs” do not have the option of broadband.

The more-exurban “Boom Towns” do better than the “Monied ‘Burbs” in terms of availability, and so do the aging “Emptying Nests” – which is especially odd when you consider that those “grayer” communities tend to be less Web savvy.

The numbers are as of Dec. 31, and they come with this proviso from Connected Nation: “These figures represent broadband service availability determined by in-depth technical analysis of provider networks and accommodations for the impact of external factors on service quality. Broadband availability at an exact location, however, cannot be guaranteed as such may be affected by limitations of technical infrastructure, topography, environment and other external factors.”

Availability versus use

But in the end, just being able to get broadband won’t be enough. One big hurdle for many families is cost. In Ohio, the average cost is about $35 a month. And when you compare Ohio’s household “availability” numbers with “adoption” numbers (those who say they have broadband), everything drops — and sharply.

The latest adoption statistics for the state are also from Connected Nation and are from April 2008 — meaning that the numbers have probably shifted some. By those numbers, however, the share of households that have broadband is no higher than 62 percent in any community type.

The “Emptying Nests” score below 50 percent for adoption, even with their well-wired communities. And the “Service Worker Centers” and “Evangelical Epicenters” drop to about 40 percent and 26 percent, respectively.

The meaning: Even after the wiring is done, some communities and households will need more help to get a broadband connection.

Why do it?

To some people, these numbers may simply provoke head scratching: Why bother wiring communities or helping households that can’t afford a high-speed connection?

The answer, say FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and others, is that the Web has become much more than a luxury; it is “the indispensable infrastructure of the digital age.” For everybody from students to telecommuting workers, broadband is essential. Watch a NewsHour interview with Genachowski:

Yet the signs from Ohio’s map are clear. The infrastructure needs some boosting, people are going to need help accessing it, and that’s not going to be cheap.

This column is cross-posted from the Christian Science Monitor’s Patchwork Nation site.

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