Broadband access source of testing, analysis, and could be legislative debate

A map of data collected for InnovateOhio showing regions that have access to internet download speeds of 100 mbps.

With an increase in remote learning, digital workplaces and Zoom meetings, the discussion over broadband internet connectivity has come up in different ways throughout Ohio. Now, testing the concept of broadband as a public utility may be the topic of legislative debate.

“Let’s put ‘Little House on the Prairie’ in a museum,” said state Sen. Teresa Fedor, D-Toledo.

Fedor told the Capital Journal she has plans to lead the discussion of making broadband internet a public utility in the state. She says the concept is long overdue, and will only help modernize the state in terms of education and economics.

“We reap the benefits, the investments come back as a return, we can invest more in the infrastructure for our education,” Fedor said.

Any effort to improve the technological infrastructure of the state would involve first bringing broadband to the parts of the state that still can’t rely on their region’s ability to connect. Rural parts of Ohio are often spotlighted as having the most access issues.

A 2019 Appalachian Regional Commission-funded study of eight Ohio counties found that between 80% and 90% of households in the “rural expanse” — areas with 20 or fewer households per square mile — have no access to broadband services.

The study also found that at least 75% of the eight-county area lacks the broadband availability to meet the current minimum established by the Federal Communications Commission.

The lack of access isn’t just limited to broadband in the areas the study analyzed.

“Degradation of basic telephone services due to beyond end-of-life copper cables is leaving affected areas without crucial life & safety communications, reverting to the 1930s, in terms of capabilities,” the study stated.

Several government agencies have analyzed the current status and future impact of statewide internet connection.

Along with pilot projects and studies, a regulatory effort has enlisted artificial intelligence to identify duplicative pieces of state law regarding broadband.

The Ohio Common Sense Initiative (CSI) was started to review “regulatory obstacles” for businesses to boost job and economic growth, according to a description of the initiative.

CSI’s leaders say they are also looking to streamline broadband rules, and the use of an artificial intelligence tool found 303 definitions related to broadband regulation across 25 different state agencies, and 16 different definitions of public utility through five different agencies.

Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, in his capacity as director of InnovateOhio, has said programs established under the agency attempt to show the true nature of broadband access in the state, along with testing the boundaries of connectivity to learn the resources needed to connect the rest of Ohio. InnovateOhio is a new DeWine administration innovation and workplace development agency.

“Access to high-speed internet is a necessity to take full advantage of the opportunities offered in our world today,” Husted said in a statement.

A pilot program through Switzerland of Ohio’s school district sought to bring telehealth, specifically behavioral health, to the students in the eight buildings in the 500-square-mile district.

According to the project’s listed objectives, the district’s experience implementing telehealth provided a pattern that could be “scaled across the state to serve all districts with mental health services, while also providing broadband internet connections to Ohioans who have been left behind.”

The program, services for which were scheduled to begin in September, is funded through Medicaid dollars set aside in the 2020-2021 biennial budget for “telehealth opportunities for behavioral and medical treatment,” according to the Lt. Governor’s Office.

“As a rural district with sparse connectivity and a county-wide service area, in recent months, the district has experienced three tragic deaths by suicide within students’ families, along with several additional suicide attempts,” the blueprint states.

In further efforts to address the internet connectivity in the state while students statewide utilize virtual learning, the state released $50 million in broadband connectivity grants for school districts to provide hot spots, internet-enabled devices, and even public and mobile Wi-Fi spaces.

In announcing the grants, Husted said more than 645,000 students are a enrolled in schools where public Wi-Fi and mobile Wi-Fi will be increased.

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