Ohio legislators are making quick work on the issue of broadband expansion so far in 2021, with the goal of providing internet access to all areas of the state.
A Republican-led effort is already seeing progress during the new legislative term. On Wednesday afternoon, the Ohio Senate voted unanimously to pass a bill to finance new broadband infrastructure projects.
A companion bill in the Ohio House of Representatives held its first hearing on Tuesday.
The proposed legislation would allocate millions of dollars toward a new “Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion Grant Program.” Private broadband providers would apply for grant funding to pay for expansion projects in underserved areas of Ohio.
The grants would not pay for the full cost of a project. In essence, this funding is meant to fill the cost gap that would otherwise prevent a company from pursuing expansion in a specific area.
To receive funding, providers would have to identify the desired project area with all the residential addresses that stand to benefit.
Applications would be scored with the priority given to those impacting Ohio households that do not currently have internet access.
Sen. Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, who sponsored Senate Bill 8, told colleagues this legislation is “crucial for Ohioans if we want to continue strengthening our economy, education, and resources available to our citizens,” McColley told lawmakers.
The pandemic has made this need even more clear, he added.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of internet access in our everyday lives as our communities adjusted to the need for virtual interactions,” McColley said. “Our need for internet access has always been apparent, but this year in particular has shown how detrimental it can be without it.”
Rep. Rick Carfagna, R-Genoa Twp., one of the biggest advocates for broadband expansion within the Ohio General Assembly, echoed that sentiment in his testimony for House Bill 2 Tuesday. Carfagna introduced similar legislation in 2019 that passed in the Ohio House with bipartisan support, but it did not reach the Ohio Senate floor for a vote before the term ended last December. He’s now trying again.
“High-speed internet is the great social equalizer of our time,” he said on Tuesday. “It has yielded a wide variety of cultural, educational and social resources to our community … so many in our state, however, continue to be deprived of access to these opportunities.”
Joining Carfagna as a cosponsor in the House is Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, who is a former Pickaway County Commissioner. Stewart noted that local governments have “a potential role to play” in the proposed grant program.
Under this legislation, a board of county commissioners can solicit project applications from broadband providers to benefit their area of the state.
“The hope is that by giving those requests a public audience, you will see either existing providers in the area step up their buildout efforts, or you may motivate an enterprising new entrant in the market to see an opportunity for additional customers,” Stewart said.
The legislation has already seen support from a wide variety of business, technology and political organizations, from the Ohio Chamber of Commerce to the Ohio Rural Development Alliance and PCs for People, a nonprofit group working to provide computers and internet to low-income Ohioans.
Advocates see this legislation as one piece of the puzzle toward providing reliable internet access to all Ohioans. Gov. Mike DeWine made broadband expansion a key component of his budget proposal, which suggests $250 million in new funding for this purpose.
Susan Jagers, the director of the Ohio Poverty Law Center, said she supports the proposed legislation but called it “only part of the solution.” The new grant program would target portions of Ohio without access, but Jagers noted there are communities with other barriers at play.
“The majority of households without access live in cities, suburbs, and small towns where broadband is readily available. For these Ohioans, the main barrier to broadband access is not geography, but cost,” Jagers said, advocating for money to assist low-income households with their internet costs.
Dorothy Baunauch, the chief executive of a Cleveland nonprofit known as DigitalC, called the legislation “a great start” and praised lawmakers for recognizing the need for solving this problem.
Still, she emphasized to lawmakers the need to improve internet access in urban communities as well as rural ones.
“(T)he unfortunate reality (is) that our very least connected communities and census tracts are largely communities of color and extreme poverty,” Baunauch said.
Sen. Sandra Williams, D-Cleveland, proposed an amendment that would make internet affordability one of the project scoring priorities. Republicans tabled the amendment, saying the hope would be to further address the issue as part of this year’s budget negotiations.
Note: This story has been updated to reflect the Ohio Senate bill passage on Wednesday afternoon.