After receiving support from various legislators, rural groups and others, a bill that would have created a statewide broadband grant program in Ohio lost momentum at the end of 2020.
House Bill 13 passed the Ohio House in June of 2020 and went through three hearings in a Senate committee. But as the legislature neared the end of the 133rd General Assembly, it never came up for a vote in the Senate. It never even made it out of the committee.
Rep. Rick Carfagna (R-Genoa Township), one of the bill’s sponsors, told Farm and Dairy he wasn’t sure why the bill didn’t go through. He added that it was a decision made by Senate leadership, but that he had numerous conversations with state senators who were enthusiastic about the bill.
“That’s probably one of the most frustrating things,” he said. “I’m at a loss as to why it didn’t get done.”
Lt. Gov. Jon Husted called the lack of a vote on House Bill 13 “incredibly disappointing,” in an interview with Farm and Dairy. He said focus on the pandemic might have contributed to the bill falling by the wayside.
“But I find it very hard to believe that legislators, particularly rural legislators, who have pointed out how big of a deal this is to their constituents, would leave without getting it done,” he added.
Husted said the new legislative leadership has told him passing a statewide grant program for broadband expansion will be a priority in the next general assembly. And if a pilot project for satellite broadband is successful, some hard to reach areas could get access as soon as this year.
“From that point of view, I’m hopeful,” he said.
The bill was introduced in 2019 and sat in committee in the House for almost a year, after several hearings. Then, in May of 2020, as the pandemic drove more people online for work and school, the bill started to pick up steam again.
It went through four more hearings and passed a House vote in about a month. The bill went through three hearings in the Ohio Senate, the last one Dec. 1, but was never brought up for a vote.
Carfagna is planning to reintroduce the more recent version of the bill in the next general assembly. He is hoping to see the Ohio Senate introduce a companion bill. He believes Sen. Matt Huffman (R-Lima), the new Senate president, will be supportive of the bill, though they haven’t spoken directly about it yet.
“I would love to see this legislation fast track,” Carfagna said. “The vast majority of the legislature not only were supportive of this bill, but are still here and were supportive of it on the last go-round.”
Having a statewide broadband strategy and state funds dedicated to broadband expansion will help the state get federal funds for broadband, as well. And Carfagna believes addressing access through a grant program will provide a foundation to address other issues like affordability.
“This legislation is going to lay the groundwork for additional industry reforms and allow us to branch off into different spaces,” Carfagna said.
In addition to hoping for a grant program, Husted said the state has some other broadband expansion projects for 2021. It will be doing testing for a pilot project with SpaceX’s satellite internet project through the month of January.
“We hope to learn from that pilot project whether the satellite technology is, sort of, a leap frog technology to provide access to the hardest to serve communities and residents of our state,” he said.
If the technology and the project are successful, he said, some people in extremely rural areas could have access to high speed internet as soon as this year.
Satellite technology won’t solve the affordability part of the broadband problem. People in low income households and communities will still have that barrier, though Husted said the service appears to be similar in cost to traditional providers.
The state is also working with not for profits, like PCs for People, to address that issue, Husted said. PCs for People is putting together high speed internet services at prices as low as $15 per month in both urban and rural underserved areas.
Husted said a lot of federal money was awarded to broadband providers in Ohio through the latest round of recovery funding. While the state doesn’t know how providers plan to use the funds yet, it will reach out to providers receiving that money to try to form private-public partnerships for broadband expansion.
The state is also working with groups, like rural electric cooperatives, that have existing infrastructure that could help expand broadband, and with existing state infrastructure, like towers and rights of way, to encourage private sector investments.
“All of those are strategies that will make the quilt that will, hopefully at some point in time, in the not too distant future, cover all of Ohio,” Husted said.
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