Lawmakers in Ohio are slowly advancing a proposal to help fund rural broadband deployment. HB 378 has similarities to Minnesota’s Border-to-Border Broadband Program and will infuse $100 million in to broadband deployment ecosystem over the next two years. It’s a welcome lift for rural areas struggling to fend off economic dilemmas.
Last fall, State Senators Cliff Hite and Joe Schiavoni announced their intention to introduce a bill with the same effect. HB 378, however, appeared to pick up steam in March and, after strong bipartisan support in committee and on the floor of the House, the bill went on to the Senate on April 12th.
Back in October, Schiavoni said in a press release:
“This legislation is incredibly important to Ohio’s future. Without access to broadband internet service, businesses can’t reach their customers, students can’t do their homework and workers have difficulty searching for jobs.”
Democrat Ryan Smith and Republican Jack Cera introduced HB 378 with an eye toward economic development in their districts and other rural areas of the state facing the need to diversify their local economies.
“With this bill, we have the opportunity to level the playing field for rural Ohioans when it comes to vital broadband infrastructure,” said Rep. Smith [in October]. “High speed broadband is the only way we can continue growing our economic base by attracting new commercial development and securing a strong labor force, our most valuable resource.”
Like the Minnesota Border-to-Border Broadband Program, which has helped expand high-quality rural connectivity, this proposal doesn’t limit eligibility to private sector entities. Political subdivisions, nonprofits, and cooperatives can also receive awards of up to $5 million or half the cost of the project, whichever is less. This element of the bill is welcome and necessary; local communities best understand the steps they need to take to improve Internet access for residents, businesses, and other entities. For too many years states have limited state grants to large private sector companies that have broken promises and delivered Internet access that is already obsolete.
Minnesota's program has allowed rural cooperatives such as Paul Bunyan Communiations to bring gigbit connectivity to rural areas of the state, enhancing economic development and allowing residents and businesses to access high-quality Internet service. Other cooperatives that have applied for and received awards include the RS Fiber Co-op and Federated Telephone Cooperative. Local governments such as Renville County, Itasca County, and Kandiyohi County have received awards in partnership with local companies and cooperatives.
The language of the bill also establishes a definition of “broadband” that complies with the FCC’s definition — 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. In other words, unless the FCC adjusts the speeds that define broadband, plans to deploy DSL networks will not qualify for funding. Communities where Internet access speeds are between 10 Mbps / 1 Mbps and the FCC’s defined “broadband” speeds, are third on the list of areas to receive prioritization after some of the areas of the state with the worst or no Internet access. Funding will be specifically granted to projects in areas considered “unserved,” as determined by the state’s broadband map.
HB 378 establishes that for the next two years, Ohio will dedicate $50 million each year from the Ohio Third Frontier Program, a fund established to help tech start-ups. The state’s Development Services Agency will review the grant applications and determine which projects receive awards.
Read the rest of HB 378 as it passed the House on April 12th.
The Journey Isn’t Over
As with every other bill that’s passed through one chamber, HB 378 must still undergo the committee process in the other half of Ohio’s Legislature. There’s always a risk that a good bill can turn bad with just a few amendments, so it’s important to keep a close eye on the bill as it moves through the process. In the House, HB 378 passed 85 - 11 and both Republicans and Democrats have spoken out in favor of injected much-needed funding into rural broadband in Ohio.
If you live in Ohio, especially the rural areas where your options for broadband are poor or you don’t have access to high-quality connectivity, we encourage you to call the Senate Finance Committee, and let them know you want them to take up HB 378.