Johnson speaks about broadband expansion

T-L Photo/JANELL HUNTER
U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, speaks to a group of local officials at a roundtable discussion on expanding broadband access to rural areas on Tuesday at the Monroe County Chamber of Commerce.

T-L Photo/JANELL HUNTER U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, speaks to a group of local officials at a roundtable discussion on expanding broadband access to rural areas on Tuesday at the Monroe County Chamber of Commerce.

WOODSFIELD — Access to the internet is essential in today’s society and economy, and U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson said he is taking the lead in Washington, D.C., to help improve broadband internet in rural areas.

Johnson, R-Ohio, hosted a roundtable discussion on expanding broadband access and services in southeastern Ohio at the Monroe County Chamber of Commerce office on Tuesday. Representatives from local broadband providers, businesses, schools and government agencies participated.

Johnson spoke about the need for expanded internet across his district because of its importance for education, business, telehealth and communication in general.

“This is a big challenge for us. I’m taking the lead on the Telecom Subcommittee in the House of Representatives … to put together a plan to roll out broadband internet across the country.We’re going to start the process because there is a lot of work that has got to be done,” Johnson said. “If you want businesses to come in, you’ve got to have internet.”

Johnson said he and others on the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology — part of the Energy and Commerce Committee — will be working closely with the Federal Communications Commission as well as with private internet providers and energy utilities on this effort.

“Since 1995, tens of billions have been spent on this effort to roll out broadband internet to rural parts of the country,” said Johnson. “We are starting a discussion with providers and utilities to see the need to bridge the rural-urban divide, and both are committed to resolving the problem. We’ve got to get the FCC on board and put rules and processes in place so that everybody knows the name of the game.”

He noted that a big challenge to broadband providers coming into rural areas is a fear that they will not have enough population choosing to purchase their services to mitigate cost of the infrastructure.

“How do you convince a provider to go the extra mile without any certainty that people will subscribe to your service? A provider must be able to get a return on their service,” Johnson said.

B.J. Smith, director of external affairs for AT&T, said her company recently accepted “Connect America” funds from the federal government that will help provide rural customers with internet connectivity. Locations for the funding were determined by the FCC using Census data to designate areas with the most need. The CAF was established by the FCC in 2011 to bring broadband to unserved Americans living in rural areas.

“There will be 34,000 homes and businesses that will receive that, and most are in Appalachian Ohio,” Smith said.

Andy Malinoski of Frontier Communications said that in conjunction with the Connect America fund, Frontier has been able to invest $63 million in Ohio broadband over the past few years with capital expenditures, which raised the household internet speeds for 14,300 residents who were “CAF eligible.”

“Those are the folks Congressman Johnson was speaking about — those a carrier would not normally bill to because it’s not financially feasible,” Malinoski said. “It raised in total the household speeds for 51,000 people in Ohio over the past 18 months. … We are making progress, we are making investments.”

Gary Ricer, CEO of GMN Broadband, which also provides internet in the area, said his company has been a self-sustaining, nonprofit entity that started its first network in 2003. A program administered by Guernsey-Monroe-Noble Tri-County Community Action Commission, GMN Broadband helps provide broadband to people at a low cost by obtaining federal grants. The high-speed internet service uses fixed wireless access points located on eight towers throughout Monroe County.

“We provide service to 1,000 households now,” Ricer said.

Johnson said there is a “bright spot in Washington” now, with President Trump directing the need for four major infrastructure programs. These include urban programs that incentivize the local community to get involved and “have skin in the game” using matching funds, infrastructure projects utilizing new technology, low interest rate government loans for infrastructure, and a specific funding category for rural areas.

“The fourth category would affect this area and would provide help with water and sewer, roads and bridges, energy infrastructure and broadband access,” Johnson said.

Much of the roundtable discussion revolved around the proposed PTT Global Chemical ethane cracker plant that may be built at Dilles Bottom and the need to have infrastructure ready for manufacturers and small businesses that would be “downstream” from the economic activity of the plant. Johnson emphasized the need for local government entities and businesses to have a plan and “get out in front” to prepare for economic opportunities.

“I encourage every economic development agency, every group of county commissioners, every county ought to have a strategic plan. You ought to know where your unserved and underserved areas are. Be ready to go with your strategic requests for infrastructure projects when the president releases that strategy and Congress rolls that out and funds it,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to tell you that the federal government and the American taxpayer is going to foot the bill for all this. There is going to be a public-private engagement in all this. That’s the way America works.”

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