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State Lawmakers are in No Hurry to Bridge Ohio's Digital Divide

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CONNECTOHIO
ConnectOhio says this is the investment that makes all other high-tech possible.

In many rural areas, broadband service remains limited, cost-prohibitive or unavailable altogether. State lawmakers have proposed two bills to change that.  But as Statehouse correspondent Jo Ingles reports, the bills appear to be stalled. 

There are two Ohios, one with high-speed internet service and the other without. 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.’”

What can lawmakers do?

photo of Joe Schiavoni
Credit STATEHOUSE NEWS BUREAU
Schiavoni says broadband need to be a state priority.

Schiavoni is backing a bill that would offer grants to private businesses, local governments, nonprofit telecom organizations and co-ops to establish broadband in those underserved or unserved areas. It’s passed the House where it has a Republican champion – new Speaker Ryan Smith.

He says so much is done online these days when it comes to workforce development. And Smith says better access 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 Chrome books 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.”

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

“Why? Because they have free Wifi there. So, I think it’s ridiculous that kids are going to have to go to McDonalds 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 that would provide $2 million to help provide broadband services to about 300,000 homes. These are areas with just a handful of homes that were missed when broadband was put through in their overall communities. 

Bipartisan support with a ‘but’
Both bills have bipartisan support yet neither is being fast-tracked for passage. The bill that Speaker Smith is backing would use $100 million dollars from the state’s Third Frontier Fund over two years to fund the grants to businesses and local governments. It’s co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jack Cera. 

Cera thinks a 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 would suggest that if the administration and others don’t want to use that (Third Frontier) funding that we should move forward to use general-fund monies on it.

“To me, it means that type of commitment. 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.”

Key to advanced tech
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.

“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. 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 bills 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 similar to what more than two dozen other states have and say is paying off in economic development.