MOUNT VERNON — The Connect Ohio Strategic Technology Plan for the future implementation of broadband Internet service in Knox County was released Thursday. Dave Davidson, Northeast Ohio Field Director for Connect Ohio, Gov. Strickland’s task force created to identify and make recommendations about the expansion of high-speed technology throughout the state, said broadband has the potential to be a great equalizer, giving smaller communities as much potential for creating Internet-based or related businesses as larger cities, while at the same time, offering entrepreneurs the lower cost of living and higher quality of life rural areas offer.
“This initiative could give this state a platform to move forward,” Davidson said. “It is something that could bring back small-town business.” Davidson said that, compared to its neighbors, Knox County is well-situated to move forward, thanks in part to the vision of John Chidester, director of the Public Library of Mount Vernon and Knox County, who started the push toward implementing fiber-optic communication lines in the county’s libraries 20 years ago.
High-speed Internet communication, an increasingly vital tool in modern business, requires fiber-optics. This technology, which sends pulses of light down glass fiber lines, has superseded older modes such as traditional copper telephone wires and T-1 lines. Davidson said that, conversely, Richland County has almost no countywide connectivity and will have a challenging time laying a groundwork comparable to what Knox already has.
Chidester, whom Davidson identified as one of the critical community leaders on this initiative, said that he was concerned about what degree of leadership the library would be able to show in light of drastic funding cuts.
“We’ve been hit really, really hard,” Chidester said. “I just had to lay off a quarter of my staff.” But he said that the library’s default position as a center of lifelong, self-directed learning makes it the natural place to provide computer training and education.
Davidson said that what might help Knox County score upcoming economic stimulus grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is by submitting hard numbers on what it would cost to set up educational programs for rural residents of the county. Information which currently has to be distributed hand-to-hand or by television and radio from the OSU Extension, Knox Soil & Water Conservation District, the Chicago Board of Trade, and other such points of information, could be quickly, instantly accessed by farmers in the most rural parts of the county with broadband. They could also connect to produce and food supply networks being created to take advantage of local food supplies in the state.
Davidson said that the other part of creating the system is for government officials, such as county commissioners and township trustees, to find the areas of need and interest for this technology and to communicate this information to service providers. Davidson said that providers are interested in expanding their networks, but they have no easy way of determining what areas would have the most interest. To that end, suppliers in southeast Ohio have formed the Ohio Appalachia Broadband Coalition for identifying areas from Knox County southeast to the Ohio River where broadband technology could give communities competitive access.
The Connect Ohio report, based on meetings that have been held over the last few months with numerous local government leaders and officials, identified availability as the number one broadband issue in Knox County, followed by the establishment or expansion of community technology centers, such as schools and libraries. Bandwidth, the ability to provide high speed access to numerous users simultaneously, was identified as the third issue liable to emerge as Internet usage climbs in coming years.
Marialice Kollar, tech director for Fredericktown Local Schools, said that most of Knox County’s schools are wired with fiber-optic lines at this point, which puts them in a good position for technology growth, but she estimated that only about half of the students have broadband Internet access at home. She said that the ideal she hopes to see in the future is children with portable computers using wireless high speed connections throughout the county. She also helps to create some programs next fall where young, computer-literate students will share their skills with patrons of the Fredericktown Senior Citizens’ Center, which is located in the old high school. Such connections would help make more people aware of the uses of broadband technology.
“The hard part is that there are still a lot of people remaining who say, ‘Why do we need it?’” Kollar said. Davidson agreed that Knox County will only be able to use broadband technology as a growth tool if the residents grasp the value of the technology.