Efforts to ensure that every Ohio household has broadband internet access is getting serious attention at the Statehouse, including a bipartisan proposal to earmark $50 million to address a problem impacting rural areas.
While 92 percent of Ohioans have access to high-speed internet, that still leaves about 300,000 rural households without decent connectivity, and pockets of unserved homes still exist even in more populated areas.
“It’s probably the No. 1 constituent issue that I get contacted about,” said Rep. Ryan Smith, R-Bidwell, who represents a portion of southern Ohio.
“I see it holding us back from an education standpoint, economic development, health, any number of things. My constituents are very frustrated by it.”
Smith, who chairs the House Finance Committee where his bill is being heard, is joined by Rep. Jack Cera, D-Bellaire, in proposing the use of $50 million in Third Frontier funds to assist local entities in expanding broadband infrastructure.
The same bill also was introduced in the Senate, sponsored by a bipartisan team of Sens. John Eklund, R-Chardon, and Joe Schiavoni, D-Boardman.
“It’s a big deal for a lot of different reasons,” Smith said, noting that in addition to concerns like people trying to take online classes, real estate agents say it’s a major issue when they are trying to sell homes without connections.
The House Finance Committee also has been holding hearings on a proposal by Rep. Rick Carfagna, R-Westerville, to give communities incentives to use their video service provider fees, with help from county and state funds, to help expand broadband for a mile or so to clusters of unserved homes.
Carfagna said the idea was born of his 14 years in the cable industry, which include an understanding of when providers decide it’s not financially feasible to run broadband access.
The big coverage holes are in rural areas, but Carfagna said more-affluent and populated villages and townships also can have pockets of unserved homes that his bill could target.
If the local community and the county each agree to cover one-third of the cost needed to make the expansion feasible for the provider, the state would kick in the final third.
“By pooling resources and having all parties place some skin in the game, the existing financial hurdles become far less intimidating,” Carfagna said.
“This is the 21st century. We need to get with the times. You can’t get a job without applying online.”
Connect Ohio, a nonprofit that works to expand broadband connections, is supporting both bills. “I have talked and interacted with those who are directly impacted by lack of broadband access. They are feeling frustrated, isolated and even forgotten,” said Stu Johnson, executive director.
He especially likes Smith and Cera’s proposal, which is modeled after Minnesota’s Border-to-Border Broadband program. It awarded $26 million for 39 projects this year, matched with $34 million in private and local money.
Over four years, Minnesota has invested just over $85 million, serving nearly 40,000 homes, businesses and community institutions.
“We have partnered with 46 different providers and deployment groups to work together to expand into areas where there wasn’t previous development activity,” said Danna MacKenzie, executive director of Minnesota’s Office of Broadband Development. “We consider that a good sign of success that our policies and programs are aligning to achieve the results we are hoping for.”
Asked what advice she would give Ohio, MacKenzie said, “The value of having providers and communities both at the table when developing the program details can’t be overstated.”
Smith said he would like to see the bills passed next year. He envisions the broadband program working similar to the way electric cooperatives brought power to rural areas of Ohio in the 1930s.
Johnson said 13 states have already enacted similar programs.
“We’re getting left behind.”