Broadband program salvaged in state budget

By: - July 1, 2021 12:45 am

(Photo by Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Getty Images).

City leaders who see internet connectivity as a growing public utility were relieved to find broadband programs and grants kept in the new state budget.

The fate of the Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion Grant Program and municipal broadband programs in the state were in question during budget negotiations.

In the Senate version of the budget, government-owned broadband networks would only have been allowed in “unserved areas,” defined as areas within the municipality that lack access to “tier one” or “tier two” broadband services. Tier one service has speeds of at least 10 but less than 25 megabits per second (Mbps) downstream and at least one but less than three megabits per second upstream. Tier two service is defined by the state as at least 25 Mbps downstream and at least three Mbps upstream.

The speeds defined as tier two service are the FCC’s definition of minimum speeds for broadband.

That level of broadband has such low usefulness that finding an area below that level would apply to less than 2% of Ohio’s population, according to Lindsay Miller, who has worked with non-profit broadband advocacy groups and is now working on broadband and telecommunications for the law firm Ice Miller.

“That doesn’t include places where satellite service is available,” Miller said. “When you add in satellite, that number effectively drops to zero.”

The government-owned broadband networks ended up avoiding these changes, but had it survived, broadband advocates say it would have knocked out programs in cities like Yellow Springs and Dublin, both of whom have spent years developing a broadband program to serve businesses and schools, along with fellow residents.

State Sen. Kristina Roegner, R-Hudson, even praised the removal of municipal broadband restrictions in a floor speech before voting for the budget.

“We did fix the broadband issue, so cities like Fairlawn can compete,” Roegner said.

Dublin mayor Chris Amorose Groomes said the Dublink program in her area has been vital to attracting jobs and connecting local companies.

Dublink started in 1999 and currently includes 125 miles of fiber optic cable in the city-owned project, compiled with Dublink Transport, which serves as a carrier-neutral network connector for businesses.

The area still has many places in need of more than one internet provider or better connection, much like the rest of the state, according to Groomes.

Groomes said broadband doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all solution, but the legislature should try to understand that its use is so prevalent now that it should be treated like any other public utility.

Like the roads, communities use broadband differently and have different needs when it comes to connectivity, therefore some amount of local control is warranted.

“I liken it to the highway system,” Groomes said. “There are roads the locals take care of, and there are roads the state takes care of.” 

Municipalities still trying to start a broadband system were relying on the state’s help, especially in communities like Athens, where connectivity depends not just on running cables, but the tree cover and hillsides in Appalachia.

“We’ve been very intentional about every street project that’s a major street project,” said Athens Mayor Steve Patterson. “We’re constantly putting conduit underground, so that we’ve got conduit that we can install fiber in the future.”

After negotiations in the conference committee, the budget approved by the House and Senate on Monday includes a $250 million allotment from the state’s general revenue fund for the Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion Grant Program.

Up to $2 million in state funding is also earmarked for a “statewide initiative to support behavioral health in schools through telehealth,” according to the budget language.

Patterson said the city has a plan to connect all municipal buildings to replace a microwave radio connection system that’s more than a decade old. But until the final budget came out, Patterson was planning on using some of the American Rescue Plan dollars to pay the $550,000 estimated costs to connect administrative buildings and municipal streets.

In terms of treating broadband as a necessary part of daily life, Patterson said he agrees that the system is a public utility, and should be treated like electricity.

“The vast majority of people that have electricity running to their homes aren’t getting certain amounts of electricity, they get the same amount as everyone else,” Patterson said. “The same should be true for broadband.”

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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.

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