Shared from the 3/11/2019 The Columbus Dispatch eEdition

Zanesville to add fast ’net downtown

ZANESVILLE — When Jay Bennett returned to Zanesville in 2014 to take over as the city’s public-service director, he found an external hard drive sitting on his new desk.

None of the office’s computers was connected to a shared network, so the hard drive was used to back up his files and share them with others.

Bennett had spent more than a decade working in private- and public-sector development jobs in the Pacific Northwest. Experiencing fast internet speeds at his rural home in Eugene, Oregon, and seeing the beginnings of smart cities and the footprint of Google in Seattle showed Bennett that communities there made technology a priority.

That was not the case in his Muskingum County hometown.

“The city had not advanced since I left in 2001,” Bennett said. “It was like time had stood still while the technology sped forward.”

And Zanesville’s lack of technological investment was starting to pose a problem, Bennett said. New businesses weren’t setting up downtown because of its slow internet speeds, and poor connections turned some visitors away.

“We need to make city government accessible to the public, but also to help the community understand the urgency around broadband,” Bennett said.

He knew change was needed, and with the help of local and federal funds, he said, downtown Zanesville could have a new high-speed broadband network sometime this year.

City officials selected CompuCorp, a Columbus-based information-technology consultant, to help build and operate a network. Fiber-optic cables, which promise fast internet speeds, will be installed in downtown Zanesville. In addition, Wi-Fi access points will be placed at nearly every intersection to create a public wireless network for visitors.

The city will own the fiber-optic cables and infrastructure, which will run in Zanesville’s four government buildings, and CompuCorp will manage the network. Downtown businesses will have the option to buy into the network for their internet service.

In comparison with four neighboring states — Michigan, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Indiana — Ohio has one of the more extensive broadband networks, according to a 2018 Ohio State University study that included all of Ohio’s neighbors except West Virginia. Ninety-two percent of Ohioans have access to high-speed internet.

There are significant gaps in the state’s network, though.

Nearly a million Ohioans still lack access to high-speed internet service, and most of them are in underserved rural communities, according to the Ohio State report. While 98 percent of urban areas have broadband access, just 69 percent of rural areas do.

It’s one reason Lt.Gov. John Husted has set as a priority increasing access to broadband statewide.

“In some places, it’s great. In other places, it’s nonexistent,” Husted said. “We have a lot of fiber in the ground in the state, but there are not always great ways to get it into people’s homes in the last mile.”

Bennett said that speeds are as slow as 3 megabytes per minute in parts of downtown Zanesville, but CompuCorp could provide speeds up to 100 times that. Once the network is completed, Bennett said, downtown will have the fastest internet speed in the city.

The Zanesville Downtown Association, the Zanesville-Muskingum County Chamber of Commerce and the city are to use a number of annual funds to pay for network maintenance. Revenue from the network will go to CompuCorp, and the city is to receive a credit from each monthly retail sale.

The city received a $127,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to build the network, and local businesses and organizations have almost matched the grant. Building the network in a section of downtown will cost about $214,000, Bennett said.

Zanesville isn’t the only Ohio city to build its own high-speed network. Several weeks ago, Zanesville officials visited Fairlawn, a suburb of Akron, to check out its fiber-optic network.

Ernie Staten, deputy director of public service in Fairlawn, said the city was losing out on foreign business because of its slow internet speeds.

“We were beyond the bottom of the barrel,” Staten said. “How do you get any economic development and keep residents happy?”

In 2016, Fairlawn invested $10.1 million to install fiber throughout the city to make high-speed internet service available to residents and businesses. Staten said internet speeds are 50 times faster than before, home values have jumped 8 percent, and businesses from across the country are moving operations to Fairlawn.

Seven cities in addition to Zanesville have recently checked out Fairlawn’s network, Staten said. He said it’s possible that more cities will begin building high-speed networks rather than rely on incumbent internet providers.

“I think it’s almost a have-to,” Staten said. “We did this to improve internet, but the network itself lends itself to the greater good.”

Although Zanesville’s network will be available only to downtown businesses for now, Bennett said investing in broadband will benefit all its residents.

“City government becomes more tech-friendly, the public gets a tool when they come downtown to stay connected, and businesses get those high speeds they need,” Bennett said. “We’ve created a magnet.” @sheridan120

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