Thousands of Portage County residents wonder if they’ll ever get high-speed internet

Photo of a white middle-aged couple in their kitchen
The Millers, who live in Ravenna, were told by Spectrum to pay for a $6,000 line extension to get high-speed internet in their home. Wyatt Loy/The Portager

After living in Ravenna for 25 years, the Millers decided to finally try and upgrade their internet once again. They had been using dial-up to operate a home-based construction business, yet were inclined to switch to DSL when Spectrum (then Time Warner) updated the phone lines in the area. At download speeds of 10 megabytes per second, it would be worth the price.

A tech worker visited their home. He determined that, because of the Millers’ location off state Route 88 and Beechwood Road, near the Ravenna Arsenal, Spectrum could not install new lines to transmit high-speed. But the Millers could, they were told, replace the line at their own expense if they wanted service.

And because Spectrum was the Millers’ only possible high-speed option, the decision was binary: Pay for the extension, or stick with dial-up.

“We calculated the distance from the closest corner,” said Rebecca Miller, a marketing and outreach professional for the Ravenna Library. The line, she found, would have to extend 600 feet from Spectrum’s nearest drop point. “And it would have been $6,000 to have it run to the house.” 

After years of dead-ends, re-surveying and two-hour customer service calls, Miller gave up pining for high-speed, wired internet. “We’re just kind of resigned to the fact that there’s not a solution for us,” she said.

Although the majority of Portage County is hooked up to broadband speeds (defined as 25 megabytes per second for downloads and 3 for uploads), thousands of people still do not. 

According to a recent survey of Portage County by Flat Wireless, there are 2,135 houses with 6,142 people underserved or unserved by broadband internet service providers (ISPs). The bulk of these are in the rural portions of eastern and northeastern Portage County. Broadband Now, an independent ISP watchdog based in Los Angeles, estimates 12% of Ohioans do not have high enough speeds.

Red dots represent unserved and underserved areas. Image by Flat Wireless

The complaints among these thousands of residents are often similar: An ISP will work with their neighbors, but not their home across the street. Speeds lag at monthly intervals or fall out during storms, and customer support is no help. And for those with no high-speed internet at all, ISP marketers routinely promise a broadband hookup, only to be proven wrong by the tech installers they send the next day.

Just as Covid-19 has exacerbated broadband gaps in rural America, it has also further placed the onus on the federal government to fill them. 

Last March, the Biden administration dedicated $100 billion “to bring affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband” to “the more than 35% of rural Americans” who lack proper access to it. In May, the FCC rolled out its $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit subsidy program, which gives $50 monthly internet discounts to those on SNAP or Medicaid.

The question to many on the ground in places like Hiram, Nelson and Paris may be: Well, then, where is the connection?

The county solution

Although Ryan Shackelford was familiar with broadband access problems in Portage County, it wasn’t until October that he went “down the rabbit hole.”

As Portage County’s emergency management director, Shackelford had come to know the radio towers here like the back of his hand. Then, Covid-era complaints from township trustees started pouring in: Residents who had to rely on the internet for work or school were fed up with being undermined. 

“So, we did something about it,” Shackelford said.

On Oct. 19, Shackelford received a study from Flat Wireless, a “turnkey” wireless solution provider based in Lubbock, Texas, which finally gave the low down on Portage County’s broadband potential. Other than giving Shackelford an accurate scope of the problem — the 6,142 residents without good broadband — the report detailed a plausible solution: fixed wireless.

Rather than have unserved residents pay for an ISP’s costly $6,000 extension lines, it suggested leveraging the Citizens Broadband Radio System — a nationwide band of coverage put out by the FCC since 2012 — and installing 4G/LTE-capable radio equipment at four pre-existing cell towers. Users in about a five-mile radius would then hook up an outdoor antenna and a new WiFi router inside their homes to tap into broadband. To extend coverage south of Windham, Flat Wireless suggested the construction of a brand new tower. The price tag for the upgrade: a projected $1.6 million.

With American Rescue Plan dollars and a possible Ohio Broadband grant feeding into the eventual buildout, Shackelford says he is confident that fixed wireless could be a salve. 

“At the end of the day, fiber is the Cadillac of internet speeds,” he said. But there are, he added, geographical and topological — even legal — obstacles for certain rural areas. “You got to run cable down this road, down that road, down this road, down that road, and you got to break ground. There are easements.” 

The wireless 4G fix, he said, “tends to be a more cost-effective opportunity to serve a broader rural community.”

Although Shackelford says he’s still in the pick-and-choose phase of Portage County’s internet makeover, residents in rural “unknown zones,” as some call them, feel left out of the high-speed conversation. Shakelford admits that, even after hearing anecdotes from township trustees, he has not heard directly from those like Miller who have bemoaned the lack of response at a county level for decades. Shackelford said the final decision will be influenced by the desires of residents on the ground.

For now, the grievances continue pouring in. Especially in Freedom Township.

“I heard so many people complaining about it before I moved here. ‘I rely on it for my job!’” said Charlene Walker, a Mantua native who has been an elected Freedom trustee since Jan. 1. “I heard it goes down a lot. Not just down for a couple of hours — it will be down for days.”

Walker is one of a handful of trustees in the loop with the county’s feasibility study, and she put broadband access for her township of 2,862 high up on her list of priorities. Besides buddying up with Shackelford, Walker said she has personally put pressure on Suddenlink, the most popular ISP in Freedom, and hosted town conferences to reassure residents she’s aware of the divide.

“My next step is to go to Spectrum and say, ‘What can you do for us?’” Walker said. She hopes to secure a deal, possibly in tandem with the county’s 4G fixed wireless opportunity. 

“I’m not going to stop until I can figure out something for this township,” she added. “Or be told no.”

For those in Freedom who pay $55 a month for Suddenlink’s service, the speeds are anything but consistent, the consensus seems to be. 

The Millers’ house in Ravenna. Wyatt Loy/The Portager

To air grievances, or shots in the dark, Freedom residents have taken to the township’s informal Facebook group for momentary catharsis. Many detail their mind-numbing experiences with Spectrum, akin to Miller’s. Others rant about being two hours on hold, or a four-day outage after a thunderstorm. One resident, Tyler Parker, said he was so frustrated that he submitted a complaint about Suddenlink to the FCC.

The rest, like resident Debbie Chinn, seem helpless: Neither the county nor the ISPs will provide for them what they see as a right, not a luxury.

“Who do I need to talk to about more internet providers in the Freedom area?” Chinn wrote to the group on Aug. 9.

Kris Jones Price responded: “Probably God.”

‘I just gave it up’

Three years ago, Sandy Tittle gave up on searching for broadband. Her husband had just died, and the Freedom Township resident, like others, had attempted to secure wired broadband from Spectrum “for years.” Her husband had used a $55 a month hotspot from another ISP. Yet, with him gone, Tittle now felt computer illiterate.

“I just gave it up,” she said, explaining: “My computer got a virus.”

Today, Tittle is making do with an alternative others, like Miller, are turning to in an almost retaliatory manner: just using their smartphones.

Until Portage County finalizes its solution to its digital divide, underserved or unserved residents seem to be relying on Verizon or T-Mobile to hold them over before a more reliable fix comes their way. And for many who have jobs that demand a constant WiFi connection, or have kids taking college courses — the wait for fast and secure speeds is a lengthy one.

A stay-at-home mom in Windham, who requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation from ISPs, said nearby phone tower access — even with its own share of surprises — is her ace in the hole. She says she has been on landline dial-up with Suddenlink, paying $80 a month for a bundle. But “we don’t ever use it,” she says.

In an email, Spectrum rejected any malfeasance regarding broadband offerings in Portage County. Bill Morand, Spectrum’s senior director of communications of the Great Lakes region, wrote that while Spectrum extended coverage to 71,000 Ohio homes and businesses in 2020, and “offers services” similar to customers in Cleveland or Akron to three-fourths of Portage County, there are rural spots that are not feasible.

“Spectrum does have the ability to provide service to all municipalities and townships in Portage County,” Morand wrote via email, referring to broadband and cable options. But “we build out where it makes economic sense to do so.”

Morand also cites Spectrum’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, a $556 million company project to heal the digital divide in 24 U.S. states. With an estimated completion by 2027 or 2028, the RDOF project, a fifth of which is funded by an FCC grant, it’s possible that Spectrum could end up providing service to those it has been unable to reach in past years. 

Paired with Portage County’s fixed 4G plan, it’s plausible that, with the aid of private and federal dollars, the 6,142 people seemingly left out of the broadband bubble could activate those idle lines after all.

But after decades of head-scratching frustration, a sour taste lingers.

“I think we’ve seen, with Covid, a lot of doctors appointments and classes being online,” the Windham stay-at-home mom said. Broadband, she says, “should be a basic human right. Yes, we’re in a rural area, so it should matter to have internet out here as much as in the city.”

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Mark Oprea is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland.