Ohio advances plan for first state broadband grant program

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A bill to create the Ohio’s first state grant program for broadband expansion has passed the state House of Representatives and is now waiting on Ohio Senate approval.

After languishing for more than a year in committee in the House, the bill began advancing again, quickly, in May. It passed the House June 11 and was introduced in the Senate June 17, by state Reps. Rick Carfagna (R-Genoa Township) and Michael O’Brien (D-Warren).

The bill proposes a grant program that would offer $20 million in grants to broadband providers for projects that bring access to unserved or underserved areas for the rest of the current budget term.

The Ohio Broadband Strategy released in December 2019 included establishing a statewide grant program as one of its goals. If it passes the Ohio Senate, House Bill 13 would fulfill that goal. It would also allow easements given to electric cooperatives for electric service to be used for broadband service, among other things.

Urgency

The third hearing for the bill was in June 2019. The fourth was in May this year, with three more following within less than a month. Carfagna said while people have known about access issues for years, the pandemic made broadband expansion a more urgent issue.

“I think that this pandemic really laid bare these disparities for everyone to see,” Carfagna said.

With so many people working from home, distance learning, using telehealth services and filing for unemployment during the pandemic, it’s been clear that people without broadband are at a disadvantage, he added.

“We know we need to attack this situation,” Carfagna said. “If there’s going to be a spike — a change in how people go about business or go about school in the fall — they’re going to need to have access to the internet, and this is going to be key to providing that.”

Both the Ohio Farm Bureau and the Ohio Rural Development Alliance have testified as proponents of the bill, among others. The alliance noted in its May 27 testimony that the pandemic has made the lack of access in some areas more obvious.

Calls for broadband expansions continue to echo across the country. In a May 21 blog post, Microsoft president Brad Smith called on Congress to add funding both in any future COVID-19 stimulus packages, and for long-term efforts to close the broadband gap.

“We need the government to step up and meet us halfway,” Smith said. “The COVID-19 virus has created a national crisis. But it has also created an important opportunity.”

Bill

The bill has been in the works for over a year, and on Carfagna’s mind for longer.

Carfagna worked in the cable industry for 14 years, working with local governments on expanding broadband infrastructure. His company often got calls from local governments asking what it would take to expand service to unserved households in their areas.

In some cases, the company was able to expand, but “more often than not, it was cost-prohibitive,” he said.

He also served as a trustee for Genoa Township, which struggles with internet access in some areas. His experiences influenced him to work on a bill to help fund broadband expansion.

When it was first introduced in May 2019, the bill proposed a grant program that was far less extensive than the one in the version that just passed the House, Carfagna said. It originally only asked for $2 million, and required local governments to cover some of the cost and be more heavily involved in projects.

The most recent version did away with the local government cost-share and simplified the grant application process so that broadband providers can directly apply for grants with the department of commerce, which would house the grant program.

Funding

The program is also set to receive more substantial funding, if it goes through. It would be funded with $20 million for the rest of the current budget biennium. That money would be transferred from funds appropriated to the Ohio Development Services Agency under the current budget.

“This is not money that is just floating around out there,” Carfagna added. “It’s money already appropriated for this biennium, that we’re repurposing for this use.”

The bill passed the House 81-8, with strong bipartisan support.

“In the divisive age that we live in … this is one of those issues that I really think unites legislators and that people can find common ground with,” Carfagna said.

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Reporter Sarah Donaldson is a former 4-Her and a Mount Union graduate from Columbiana County, Ohio. She enjoys playing and writing music, cooking, and storytelling in many forms. She can be reached at 800-837-3419 or sarah@farmanddairy.com.

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