If you have ever spent more than a week in a location without Wifi, then you probably know how dependent we have become on the internet as a society. Last year the UN announced that it believes that internet access is a human right.
Rural Americans are about twice as likely as those who live in urban or suburban settings to never use the internet, yet with its increasing presence in our modern lives, even rural areas are finding clever ways to make sure they stay connected. This has been recognized by companies such as Microsoft, who have announced they want to connect two million rural Americans to high-speed wireless broadband by 2022.
However, while large tech giants and the government want to ensure that everyone in rural areas have internet access, the technology and the services simply aren’t available yet, leaving many rural residents to develop their own methods to connect to the world wide web.
One of the key motivators behind this push is a desire to keep up with economic changes. While many of these towns were once populated with coal jobs, many residents understand these days have passed and it is important to look ahead at what is next.
“We view it as the next economic revolution for coal towns,” said Harry Collins at a rural broadband summit in Appalachian, Ohio. Collins is also the chairman of the Letcher County Broadband Board, which formed late last year with the aim of providing a world-class community telecommunications infrastructure for Letcher County, Kentucky.
“The majority of our railroad tracks are ripped up now—that revolution has played out. We feel that this [digital] revolution is just as game changing and life changing as those railroad tracks were in the 20s and 30s.”
In Warsaw, Ohio 2006, Gary Fisher, the then mayor of the town, decided to run for a commissioner seat. It was the first time he had noticed the area’s digital divide. “We had great internet service in Warsaw, so I didn’t realize it was an issue until I started campaigning county wide,” Fischer told Vice.
At the time it became abundantly clear that a large majority of the people in the county’s rural areas lacked any type of internet access. There were very few options available, and Fischer wasn’t sure how to tackle this, but he told voters he would work on fixing the problem if he got elected. Fischer took office on January 1, 2007.
In order to obtain any kind of internet through satellite signal, which appeared to be the best option, Fischer had to find towers to use to secure a clear signal. After plenty of searching for towers and structures that were available and useful, he had the idea of using Ohio’s large number of silos. “We’re in a farming community. We’ve got 100 foot silos all over the country. That’s as good as a 100 foot tower,” he stated.
Fischer also looked at using huge state-owned radio towers that transmitted Ohio’s Multi-Agency Radio Communication System (MARCS), which is used by emergency services. After some time, the state gave the greenlight to lease the MARCS towers, and Coshocton secured a $38,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission.
The money was used to offset the costs of leasing the towers while the local provider set up shop. Over the next six years, 16 towers were raised, using barns, MARCS towers, water towers, delivering high-speed internet to the county’s most rural residents.
As a result, between 2008 and 2011, the percent of Coshocton County residents with broadband internet at home increased from 32% to 58%, according to Connect Ohio, and they were paying less than the state average.
Many areas still lack a reliable connection, however, through persistence and ingenuity it is possible for rural residents to plug in and stay connected. As the Midwest continues to grow as a land of opportunity for startups, the demand for high speed internet is only going to increase, placing pressure on large companies and internet providers, or possibly promoting creativity from local residents such as Gary Fischer, who might beat the tech giants to it.