BGSU State of the Region Conference highlights importance of digital equity for economic, societal benefit

BOWLING GREEN, Ohio – The Center for Regional Development at Bowling Green State University brought community leaders and learners together during the 22nd State of the Region Conference on Monday, March 11, with a focus on connecting and bridging the digital divide to create deeper regional resilience and a more inclusive economy.

At the conference, Dr. Nichole Fifer, director of the Center for Regional Development, presented data from the center showing strong regional employment numbers and GDP figures, particularly in manufacturing, professional and scientific services, and logistics, transportation and warehousing. She noted the center’s compiled data show Ohio’s GDP is sixth in the nation and Ohio is also one of six states with the nation’s lowest unemployment rates.

Fifer also shared snapshots of information on regional broadband connectivity, revealing the work that is still needed to ensure all Ohioans have access to high-speed internet by increasing access and speeds to remove broadband deserts.

“When we look at availability, in aggregate it looks pretty good, but when we get down to those smaller geographies at the ZIP Code level, that’s when things get variable," Fifer said. "The work that the Center for Regional Development has done with the Toledo Lucas County Public Library and the Regional Digital Inclusion Alliance with BroadbandOhio has shown that the devil is definitely in the details when we’re talking about connectivity."

To foster strong economic futures for Ohio residents, the conference heard from multiple speakers and panelists – including several BGSU alumni – working on reducing barriers to internet connectivity and promoting digital skill literacy.

Spearheading digital inclusion efforts in northwest Ohio is Lucas Camuso-Stall, director of government relations and advocacy for the Toledo Lucas County Public Library, who graduated from BGSU in 2015 with a degree in journalism with a concentration in public relations and a minor in political science.

Camuso-Stall was joined on stage by Anna Miller, manager of digital equity and inclusion with BroadbandOhio, which named the Toledo Lucas County Public Library the lead agency in the Northwest Ohio Regional Digital Inclusion Alliance in 2023.

Through the partnership, the library conducted in-person listening sessions and collected direct feedback from local leaders, businesses, health and human service organizations and residents on the state of connectivity in their community. The findings are being used to help shape the State Digital Equity Plan and will inform the state of Ohio on how and where to make key technology and broadband investments.

“The pandemic was kind of that breaking point for a lot of us to really see what digital inequity looked like in our communities,” Camuso-Stall said. “A lot of people were trying to get very quickly into the technology fold. This was a dramatic shift for our community as we were trying to collectively navigate what was going on with the pandemic, with what the future of work looked like and what the future of school looked like.”

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act had over $60 billion allocated to both broadband development as well as digital equity, and to take advantage of federal funding to attempt to close the digital divide, the library coalition needed to be able to quantify the problem in the region. Camuso-Stall said they turned to the BGSU Center for Regional Development to help.

The center assisted with the data analysis, surveying and community outreach. Nine listening sessions were conducted in Lucas, Wood, Hancock, Crawford, Fulton, Defiance, Sandusky, Paulding and Ottawa counties, while hundreds of individuals responded to a circulated broadband survey. The library also partnered with BGSU for internal review board approval during the project.

“BGSU CRD put together this plan for us where we took this step-by-step process of how we're actually going to measure dysconnectivity in our community,” Camuso-Stall said. “Later, when we further started to dig into the data, again with the help of BGSU CRD and through leveraging some Census data, we saw that a little over 20,000 households in Lucas County alone did not have an Internet subscription. As we dug even further, we saw that nearly 30,000 households in Lucas County also did not have an internet-ready device within their household, whether that be a smartphone, a laptop, a tablet or a desktop.”

The conference also featured a discussion on the need for and the future of telehealth, especially in rural regions, with Danielle Renckly, program coordinator for the Upper Midwest Telehealth Resource Center, who noted that such connectivity and accessibility are critical to helping alleviate barriers to care for people.

A robust panel discussion on the need for high-speed internet access to forge economic inclusivity in the areas of healthcare, workforce and economic development, and education rounded out the conference.

As a panelist, Dr. Dawn Shinew, dean of the BGSU College of Education and Human Development, called the possibility of widespread and affordable internet access “the great equalizer” that could help with uneven access to certain classes and educators.

Established in 1996, the BGSU Center for Regional Development partners with and convenes stakeholders from communities and organizations to enhance the economic vitality of northwest Ohio. The center serves as a trusted and neutral capacity builder, data analytics provider, planning facilitator, program evaluator, and a bridge to BGSU faculty, students and resources.

The 2024 State of the Region Conference was made possible with support from AT&T, city of Bowling Green, BroadbandOhio, Buckeye Broadband, CNI, Fishbeck, Ohio Rural Broadband Association, Spectrum, Summit Financial Group, city of Toledo, Toledo Lucas County Public Library and Wood County Economic Development Commission.

Updated: 03/13/2024 11:31AM