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Slow Connection: Ohio Legislature Drags On Bills Expanding Broadband Access

Charles Barilleaux

There is something millions of Ohioans take for granted that hundreds of thousands of others merely dream about: broadband service. All of Ohio’s major cities have it and some communities even offer it free to residents.

In other parts of Ohio, though, broadband internet is limited, cost prohibitive or simply unavailable at all. The Ohio General Assembly is considering two bills that are meant to provide these services to areas without it, and though they have bipartisan support, the proposals have gotten stalled. 

State Sen. Joe Schiavoni says when he was running for governor in the Democratic primary, he heard from people who wanted to start or expand businesses in the parts of Ohio that lack reliable broadband service.

“I would hear complaints from businesses saying, you know, we like the geographical location in Ohio and in certain parts of Ohio specifically but the high-speed internet, the broadband access is unreliable and so that’s a reason to not expand or to not move there," Schiavoni says.

Schiavoni is backing a bill in the Ohio Senate, SB 225, that would offer grants to private businesses, local governments, nonprofit telecom organizations and co-ops to establish broadband in those underserved or unserved areas. The proposal passed the House where it has a Republican champion: new Speaker Ryan Smith, who says so much is done online these days when it comes to workforce development.

Smith says the “Ohio Broadband Development Grant Program” would give students in those areas the same access to high-tech learning as those who attend schools in cities or more developed areas of the state.

“Our children, while they can study online and they have Chromebooks and things like that, they can’t go home and access it at night so you are limited to that time period when you are in the school building where you have access," Smith says.

While students can go to local libraries to access the internet, there is another place where Republican state Rep. Rick Carfagna says kids are often going to do their homework: McDonald’s.

“Why? Because they have free WiFi there,” Carfagna says. “So, I think it’s ridiculous that kids are going to have to go to McDonald’s to do their homework or they are going to have to go to the library or Grandma’s house – anywhere but their own home, just to do their homework.”

Carfagna has a different bill, HB 281, that would provide $2 million to help provide broadband services to about 300,000 homes, which were passed over when internet was installed in their communities. That bill also passed in the Ohio House, way back in January.

Both bills have bipartisan support, yet neither is being fast tracked for passage in the Senate. The bill that Smith backs would use $100 million dollars from the state’s Third Frontier Fund over a two-year period to fund the grants to businesses and local governments.

The bill was co-sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Jack Cera, who thinks a possible reason for the lack of movement could be that some state leaders want to earmark those Third Frontier dollars for autonomous vehicles, smart tracks and other high-tech investments.

“I think there’s been some pushback on it,” Cera says. “I would suggest that if the administration and others don’t want to use that funding that we should move forward to use general fund monies on it. To me, it means that type of commitment and other states are making that commitment and we are going to end the year with a fund balance of about $500 million, so it would be easy to invest in that. And I think the return to Ohio would be great.”

Stu Johnson, executive director of the technology non-profit Connect Ohio, says both bills are needed. And he says the entire state needs broadband in order to take advantage of more advanced technologies.

“Well the fact is that all of these things that we look at, whether it’s precision agriculture or autonomous vehicles or sensors or education or workforce development or economic development – those are all end results,” Johnson says. “All of those require broadband. The autonomous vehicles, while the majority of that is done wirelessly, you need high capacity fiber as close to that vehicle as you can get so it’s all part and parcel of the overall goal.”

Johnson says both pieces of legislation would allow the state to draw down matching funds from the federal government. And he says the larger bill targeted at business would fund a comprehensive broadband plan like more than two dozen other states now have– which they say is paying off in economic development. 

Jo Ingles is a professional journalist who covers politics and Ohio government for the Ohio Public Radio and Television for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. She reports on issues of importance to Ohioans including education, legislation, politics, and life and death issues such as capital punishment.