The Federal Communications Commission has approved a measure that will provide billions of dollars to subsidize internet service providers for the construction of rural broadband Internet.

The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund was approved Jan. 30 by the FCC, according to news reports.

The plan aims to provide $20.4 billion to internet service providers over 10 years “to support up to gigabit speed broadband networks in areas that lack access to 25/3 Mbps broadband service and connect most Americans in a cost-effective manner,” according to an FCC fact sheet.

Allocations would come in two phases. The fund would first provide up to $16 billion in Phase One for support targeting census blocks that are clearly unserved by broadband service. Phase Two would provide at least $4.4 billion for unserved locations in partially served census blocks and areas not covered by the first phase.

“Without access to broadband, rural communities cannot connect to the digital economy and the opportunities it brings for better education, employment, healthcare and civic and social engagement,” the fact sheet states.

The Ashtabula County Board of Commissioners have been vocal for more than a year about a desire to bring better Internet service to the county. Commissioner J.P. Ducro said such a fund will certainly help with local efforts.

“If this is funding for providers I want to be sure those providers are aware of this and will go out and try to secure it,” Ducro said.

Ducro said next week he will meet with the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments — comprised of officials from Ashtabula, Trumbull and Mahoning counties — to discuss how the three counties can collaborate on planning grants for broadband initiatives.

Ducro said Ashtabula County essentially has an internet service black hole which stretches from east of Route 11 and south of Monroe Township to just north of Andover and the state line.

“That area has very sketchy and unreliable service,” Ducro said.

Ducro said such black holes create problems for everything from home businesses, to students needing to complete Internet homework assignments and patients who can’t communicate with doctors in the ever-growing field of tele-medicine. It also impacts agriculture because more and more farm machinery relies on Internet signals and GPS positioning to properly function, Ducro said.

Lack of service is an issue Commissioner Kathryn Whittington can personally attest to. Whittington, who lives in Richmond Township, has no Internet or cell phone service at her home.

“I’m very excited to hear that there is an investment being made and we will continue to fight for those dollars to come down to Ashtabula County,” Whittington said. 

Whittington said her child has had to utilize the library, or McDonald’s if the library is closed, to complete homework assignments for Pymatuning Valley Local Schools.

This proves an inconvenience not only because of a lack of Internet service, but also because in a rural community a trip to a library or location that has Internet isn’t just a walk around the block.

“There’s a lot of children using the library system as well as restaurants or friend’s houses,” Whittington said. “A lot of assignments are either on Google Chromebooks or Google Docs, so either way you have to have Internet access. It’s especially a challenge for those families who may not have reliable transportation to get their family back and forth.”

Whittington said as co-owner of a small business, it is very challenging to function because she also has to drive somewhere to do payroll, emails and quoting.

“I’m 15 minutes to Andover,” Whittington said. “When you go, it’s a planned trip to do payroll, taxes, email and things like that.”

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