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Access to high-speed internet is as essential for life in the 21st century as basic utilities like water, gas or electricity. In her placement as an American Connection Corps Fellow, Carly Fitz has seen how residents of rural Perry County, Ohio are falling behind due to their lack of access to affordable internet. In her fellowship role as an Access Specialist for Perry County with the Buckeye Hills Regional Council, she hopes to change this and bring economic renewal to the region through improved high-speed internet access.
When starting in her position, it became clear that existing data documenting regional internet access capacity and connection speeds was outdated and did not accurately reflect the needs of Perry County. To address this, Carly traveled throughout the region to educate residents on how to perform internet speed testing and she distributed 1,850 flyers to homes in the area to encourage them to take the speed test. This was key to ensuring that the Buckeye Hills Regional Council had the most up-to-date connectivity data to identify the areas of greatest need. Equipped with this new information, Carly was ready to get to work.
As a critical next step, Carly created a Broadband Advisory Committee in Perry County, consisting thus far of 15 representatives from the local libraries, schools and other development organizations. The new organization will hold its first meeting in January 2022 and will help shape the county’s connectivity future.
The committee has three subcommittees to effectively tackle the different needs and challenges of the region as they arise. The infrastructure subcommittee will focus on expanding broadband infrastructure through collaboration between funders and internet service providers. Once the needed infrastructure is in place, the affordability subcommittee can work to increase access to affordable at-home connections through federal grants and through initiatives like those of the nonprofit, PCs for People. Finally, once affordable access is established, the digital literacy subcommittee will work to ensure that residents are equipped with the knowledge and tools needed to get online in their daily lives. One specific initiative Carly hopes to continue under the committee’s direction is an effort to connect Perry County senior citizens with high school seniors to learn basic computer and technology skills.
In addition to her work to create a Broadband Advisory Committee, Carly contributed to several other important efforts in the county. By working with local internet service providers, she was able to encourage the development of new lines that brought service to 500 previously unserved households. Furthermore, Carly’s efforts to identify the areas of greatest need in the region helped internet service providers reach 9,450 new applications for the Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion Grant Program. She has also supported a local fiber technician training program (part of the state’s efforts to build up the internet infrastructure workforce) and hopes to continue to expand those efforts.
When Carly began her fellowship, one of her primary goals was to be hyper-local in her efforts, saying, “I think that the way to be successful with this effort is to connect small areas with the greatest need slowly. I’m trying to take these little pockets in the county that need local phone service as well as high-speed internet and connect all of those areas to each other.” She hopes that her work can contribute to not only the growth of the county’s economy, but also its sense of community. Heartland Forward is excited to see what Carly and all of our American Connection Corps fellows can accomplish in their work to bridge the digital divide.