Most of us can’t imagine not having access to the internet in our homes or workplaces or at least at the corner coffee shop or library. But millions of people in the United States do not, including 621,000 in Ohio.

That is expected to change dramatically in the next few years through a public-private partnership to bring broadband internet to areas where it’s not currently available. These unserved areas are primarily remote or rural regions that are obstructed by trees or have such small populations that it’s not worth it for companies to build an infrastructure for internet service.

Microsoft Corp. and Watch Communications this week announced a deal to bring internet access to various unserved regions in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Watch Communications, based in Lima, offers internet, phone and TV service primarily in the northern halves of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, roughly north of Interstate 70.

There are many regions in Northeast Ohio that don’t have broadband internet service, which doesn’t necessarily mean high-speed. Broadband internet is defined as speeds of at least 25 megabits per second; most homes with internet service have 50 to 100 mbps.

In Northeast Ohio, some of the regions in need of internet include counties south or east of Canton, such as Tuscarawas and Carroll, or south of Youngstown, such as Columbiana. In the Dover-New Philadelphia area, for example, half of households can’t get quality internet because of dense trees, said Frank Glaszner, vice president of sales and marketing for Watch Communications.

Building just one mile of fiber line to serve just a handful of homes simply isn’t cost-effective, Glaszner said.

Now, Watch is relying on its new partnership with Microsoft and various federal grants and funds from cities and counties in some cases. Instead of building fiber lines, it will rely on “TV white space,” or the unused spectrum between TV channels. The internet technology will use devices hung from existing cellphone towers & communicate with homes and businesses through small mounted satellite-type dishes that might be the size of a thick magazine. The homes would still need a router to communicate with devices such as computers or phone.

Once the internet service is available in these areas, a household might expect to pay $60 a month, which is competitive with what many consumers pay through traditional local providers such as Spectrum, Cox or AT&T. “We’re not taking advantage of customers because of where they’re located,” Glaszner said.

Work will begin immediately, a Microsoft spokeswoman said. Watch said the internet service should be available later this year or early next year in the initial rollout, which might include 30 counties. More regions will be added later.

Watch Chief Operating Officer Greg Jarman said Microsoft is dedicated to reaching populations underserved by technology. “They have been a great advocate for rural America,” Jarman said.

Microsoft isn’t making a direct financial investment as part of the partnership, a spokeswoman said, but is “providing technology access and expertise, digital skills and general support to accelerate Watch’s deployment efforts (e.g., competitive access to towers, discounted TV white space equipment).”

The partnership is part of the Microsoft Airband Initiative, which aims to offer broadband access to 3 million people in rural areas in the next three years.

At least 20 million Americans don’t have broadband access, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

This new effort is expected to benefit most of Ohio’s 88 counties, 50 counties in Indiana and 22 counties in Illinois. With new or improved internet access, people will be able to have better access to educational opportunities and telemedicine; consumers and businesses will be able to take part in the digital economy; and farmers will be able to benefit from technology to help them better monitor crops and increase yields.

“You can’t be a part of the modern economy or education system without access to high-speed internet, and we are taking steps in Ohio to extend broadband to those who are underserved across the state,” Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said in a statement. “Thank you to Microsoft for being among the leaders on this & for being willing to consider innovative solutions to help extend opportunity to people in Ohio who need it.”

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