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Ohio budget may impact broadband money, government networks

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Posted at 8:49 AM, Jun 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-16 08:49:11-04

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Ohio Senate’s budget plan would squash the state’s momentum toward boosting broadband access and make it harder to get more residents connected to high-speed internet in areas where the private sector isn’t stepping in, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said.

As lawmakers sort through competing state budget proposals this week in pursuit of an agreement, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s administration is advocating for them to keep the $190 million that the House proposed for expanding residential broadband and scrap the Senate’s proposed restrictions for local government-owned broadband networks.

Operators of such networks say the Senate proposal could hamstring or kill their operations just as they’re seeing a federal tailwind. President Joe Biden’s administration is advocating for funding such networks and local governments getting access to huge amounts of federal relief funding that could be used to address broadband needs.

The pandemic exposed how important high-speed internet has become for schooling, business and other aspects of modern life. Economic development officials consider it an essential service, akin to public utilities. But state officials say an estimated 300,000 households and at least 1 million residents across Ohio lack broadband, and some advocates say the numbers are even higher.

The language passed by the Republican-led Senate would restrict local governments to establishing government-owned networks to provide broadband service only in “unserved” areas within their own jurisdiction — limiting partnerships and excluding service to adjacent areas, even if those might be economical. The bill also would restrict how those networks could use federal or other funds toward the substantial costs of such projects.

For communities hoping to use federal relief funding to create or expand their own broadband networks, “This bill could just cut us off at the knees,” said Bethany Dentler, executive director of the Medina County Economic Development Corporation. “And it’s the citizens and the businesses who are worse off for it.”

The open-access broadband network Medina County created has helped improve access and lowered customers’ broadband costs, she said. But she said the budget legislation would block the subscriber growth that the county’s network needs to help cover its costs, and could jeopardize a private-sector partner’s $50 million commitment to expanding residential broadband in the area.

It’s also possible the restrictions could be challenged as an intrusion on local governments’ “home rule” rights under Ohio law, said Lindsay Miller, a former director of the nonprofit Connect Ohio who now works on broadband issues with the Ice Miller law firm.

Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, indicated the language was added to the bill to make sure municipalities are serving underserved areas in their own jurisdictions, not getting into the broadband business as profit-seeking competitors to private providers in a wider area.

The lieutenant governor argues that’s not the problem. Solutions are still needed for areas — often poor or rural areas — where private providers understandably don’t operate because they can’t make enough money to justify their investment, said Husted, who also leads the state’s InnovateOhio effort.

The state took a step to address that this spring by allotting an initial $20 million for the new Residential Broadband Expansion Grant Program, intended to connect more hard-to-reach homes by funding the parts of such projects that providers consider unjustifiable from a business perspective.

The House version of the budget included another $190 million, but Senate Republicans excluded that funding. Huffman said more clarity was needed about the plan for using that money.

Husted said the level of interest expressed for potential projects is already exceeding the amount proposed by the House.

“We’re trying to help the communities and the people who don’t have access because the private sector isn’t coming,” he said.