COLUMBUS, Ohio — Movement continues at the state level to bring broadband access to underserved households across Ohio.
Earlier this month, the Ohio House of Representatives approved House Bill 2, following less than a month between the introduction and confirmed support sending the legislation to the Ohio Senate.
According to research analyst Kathleen A. Luikart, the bill as reported by the House Finance Committee ordains several actions by creation, requirement, specificity, permission and provision. It outlines authority, grant programming and reimbursement and the ramifications if either the broadband provider does not complete the construction the program outlines, or the required speeds promised are not met.
The $210 million measure would create a “Residential Broadband Expansion Program” by providing grants to offset construction cost hurdles and help facilitate the expansion of high-speed internet and all broadband services to unserved households across Ohio.
“For job creators, educators, parents, students and frankly all Ohioans, access to the internet means access to information and opportunity,” said Rep. Jay Edwards, R-Nelsonville, in a press release. “It’s a top issue for southeast Ohio, and this legislation will help move us forward.”
According to Edwards’ release, the legislation helps target the issue of last-mile connectivity to households where it remains cost-prohibitive for private providers to extend service. The legislation also includes reforms to drive increased private investment of broadband infrastructure in unserved areas.
With last-mile connectivity at the heart of the Southeast Ohio Broadband Cooperative’s mission, founder David Brown weighed in on the bill, too, as the cooperative continues signing up clients this week.
“(Rep.) Don Jones called me yesterday to review our status and ensure that SEOBC would not be disqualified,” Brown said. “Now to get it through the Senate and start what is sure to be a complex application process.”
Jones hails from Freeport and represents several local counties in Columbus. He and Edwards are the state representatives who cover Marietta, Washington County and surrounding areas in southeast Ohio.
Jones explained Sunday that House Bill 2 is a reiteration of an old house bill in the last legislative session that stalled in the Ohio Senate, House Bill 13, and is complimented by Senate Bill 8, which last year would have set aside $20 million for the grant program.
“So with us passing that emergency clause … it should go to the governor for signature on that initial $20 million. … There’s a possibility that we’ll start seeing those dollars available this spring, or summer,” Jones said. “I’m going to give the credit where it’s due. The Southeast Ohio Broadband Cooperative has been established there in Washington County (and) has already … put boots on the ground and is seeing results. That’s what at the end of the day we really need to make sure happens.”
Jones said surety of performance is key to his support of the bill.
“How are we going to make sure that we hold these people accountable? We are going to have to make sure that this money is spent for the boots on the ground, getting access to where there is no access, and not just doing studies and reinventing the wheel to tell us where we need help,” he said. “We cannot continue to let people take money (and say), ‘We had our administrative costs and then we did the research, but you know, and then we ran out of money.’ OK but you didn’t accomplish anything.”
According to Buckeye Hills Regional Council’s own project summary presented in October, $50,000 in federal funds was spent on “Broadband Research/Business Surveying” in the regional council’s $398,247 Economic Development Administration Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act dollars; $51,247 of those dollars were noted as Buckeye Hills Regional Council administrative costs.
Jones nodded, also, to the work and investment of the Washington County Board of Commissioners to supply CARES Act dollars for the first installation of wireless antennae on Highland Ridge outside Marietta this month.
“You got to make sure you’ve got bonafide people receiving those dollars so that they’re utilized,” he said.
“I appreciate the Washington County commissioners partnering with them to get it off the ground. … There comes a point in time you have to have the money to implement your plan and put it into action.”