Some state legislators are hoping to set aside $50 million each year to provide broadband internet access to Ohioans left without a dependable connection. According to Connect Ohio, some 300,000 rural households don't have reliable access to the internet.
In November, State Sens. Joe Schiavoni (D-Boardman) and John Eklund (R-Munson Township) introduced SB 225, which would funnel $50 million in annual grant funding toward broadband improvement projects in rural areas across Ohio. The money would come from Ohio Third Frontier bond revenue — not the state's general fund.
State House Reps. Ryan Smith (R) and Jack Cera (D) introduced "companion" legislation in the House.
“This bill would help make Ohio competitive in a changing economy," Schiavoni, a 2018 gubernatorial candidate, said in a public statement. "By expanding internet access, we can create opportunities for everyone, no matter where in the state they live.”
The bill has been in the Senate's Finance Committee for three weeks, where the particulars of this funding mechanism will be sorted out. The plan is to award grants of up to $5 million per local project. Generally, the bill is based off of Minnesota's broadband infrastructure development program.
Under the Ohio proposal, businesses, non-profits, co-ops or political subdivisions would receive funding to build broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas. "Preference would be given to applicants who offer creative ways to stretch dollars and help as many people as possible [and] expand broadband to vital services such as schools, hospitals, and police and fire departments."
It's a timely suggestion, as the Ohio State University underscored in a recent report on Ohio's disparate state of broadband. The report looks closely at rural counties, where 31 percent of the population lacks access to fixed broadband (as opposed to rates as low as 10 percent in urban areas). The authors suggest multiple paths forward in the effort to bridge the digital divide in Ohio — like establishing a state broadband office.
The OSU authors also assert that a “dig once” policy should be on the books in Ohio, which would "require that private broadband providers be notified when public right of ways are excavated so that they can be given the opportunity to install broadband infrastructure. They also often require that dedicated internet conduit be laid in the right of way during new construction to prepare for future broadband needs.”
Ideas like that are being discussed as SB 225 slowly picks up traction among state lawmakers.
Read the full OSU report below.
"The recommendations that are in that OSU report, I support 1,000 percent. And they aren’t rocket science. They’re gosh-darn common sense," Connect Ohio executive director Stu Johnson tells Scene. His nonprofit has also praised the Statehouse legislation, which would provide at least some measure of public funding for these efforts.
With major telecommunications corporations tied to shareholder concerns (rather than any sense of competition in the marketplace), there's little hope that an AT&T or a Comcast will invest proportionately in a place like Fairfield County, southeast of Columbus (population 151,000 or so). It's incumbent, then, on local governments to get involved in the development work.
Last winter, Connect Ohio selected Fairfield County as one of its engagement sites. The organization helped craft a technology action plan, which was published this spring.
Spurred by the analysis and the interest from Intelliwave Broadband, local leaders in Fairfield County rerouted zoning laws to make it more palatable for a provider to invest in infrastructure development. Intelliwave specializes in local “last-mile” development, which was cited specifically in the Connect Ohio report on Fairfield County. (“Last-mile” development refers to the gap between established “global” fiber infrastructure and the places where infrastructure is lacking.)
By August, Intelliwave publicly announced that it was beginning construction on a gigabit fiber optic broadband network that would benefit hundreds of households.
“The digital divide in Fairfield County has just narrowed,” Intelliwave CEO Chris Cooper said in a public statement at the time.
And though it took some creative cooperation from multiple parties, “Bottom line is: We got it done,” Johnson says. “It resulted in a billion-and-a-half-dollar investment and about 500 houses connected. That solved that one little neighborhood. But guess what? You go one township over, you have the same gosh-darn problem! If you want a regional approach, you need a regional strategy.”
Right now, there's no coherent "digital divide" policy at the state level — or even at a regional level across Ohio. That's where the legislative intent of SB 225 comes in, at least as a starting point in the conversation. Projects like the Fairfield County work could receive a helpful bump in available funding, were the bill to become law.
We’ve asked to speak about the digital divide with representatives from JobsOhio, the private nonprofit that operates as an economic development office at the state level. (Update: A JobsOhio spokesman says that the agency doesn't comment on pending legislation like SB 225. We'll provide additional information from the agency in future stories.)
As a presidential candidate in 2016, Gov. John Kasich wasn't clear on the topic at all. When asked by a Massachusetts voter about broadband access in rural townships in the U.S., Kasich kicked it to the private sector: "There are technologies being developed right now that can really basically solve the 'last-mile' problem through an ability through wireless. These technologies are being developed, and I think ultimately that's the answer."
As the FCC looks to dismantle net neutrality policies on the federal level next week, the urgency of this problem will only grow more dire.
"And yet here in Ohio we have been a leader when it comes to government technology," Johnson says. "When you look at public safety, we have an extremely robust public safety network for our first responders. If you look at our government agencies and schools, they have wonderful connectivity, but residents and businesses are lagging behind.”