Ohio Law Would Bar Community Networks From Broadband Expansion Program

HB 13, a law moving through the Ohio state legislature, creates the state’s first-ever residential broadband expansion program in order to address an access gap faced by hundreds of thousands of households across the state. Unfortunately, it bars municipally owned networks and electric cooperatives from participating in the $20 million pot of funds aimed at extending Internet access to areas with significant connectivity challenges. 

How It Would Work

The bill — titled “Establish Residential Broadband Expansion Program” — passed the Ohio House of Representatives on June 11 of this year, and takes aim at addressing last-mile connections and bringing more Ohioans online. If passed, it would create a $20 million fund and effect regulatory changes to provide subsidies for private entities in the state to extend their networks and connect more people. 

HB 13 establishes a number of conditions that have to be cleared for projects to be eligible. First, areas included can’t already include projects that have gotten money from the federal programs like Connect America Fund or the FCC's upcoming Rural Digital Opportunity Fund taking place this fall. 

Second, the bill establishes a score mechanism that privileges areas that are unserved and underserved. Projects addressing unserved areas top the list: it defines the latter as lacking access to download speeds of 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of 1 Mbps. The bill then favors “Tier 2” projects (which provide a minimum of 25/3 Mbps service) to either unserved areas or to “Tier 1” areas (those where download speeds come in between 10 Mbps and 25 Mbps and upload speeds are between 1 Mbps and 3 Mbps). 

Finally, HB 13 provides extra consideration for projects aimed at “distressed areas,” projects that can demonstrate in-kind or other financial contributions that have already been approved, those that utilized public Rights-of-Way, and those that demonstrate advantages in terms of the speed of the buildout or future scalability.

Problem Provisions and Vague Definitions

Bill co-sponsor Rick Carfagna, who worked as Government Relations Manager for Time Warner Cable for 14 years, emphasized the need to move quickly:

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has underscored how critically important it is for Ohioans to have access to reliable high-speed internet. As so many of our economic, educational, and social activities have shifted to virtual platforms, the divide between those who have access to the internet and those who do not has been exacerbated. We believe that the enhancements made to House Bill 13 represent a meaningful step toward closing that gap.

But the bill contains provisions that seem problematic if the intent is to provide more Ohioans to high-speed, reliable Internet access as fast as possible. 

Most disappointing is that electric cooperatives and municipal networks are explicitly prohibited by the bill from applying for funds to extend networks and provide retail service to customers. Money can go to video service providers, telecommunications providers, satellite providers, and wireless providers, but not governmental, quasi-governmental entities, electric utilities, or any affiliates of electric utilities. Electric utilities can serve as “broadband facilitators” to get service via their lines out to priority unserved areas, extending existing middle-mile and backhaul networks in order to lease bandwidth to private entities using the funds to complete connections to homes, but neither they nor their affiliates can act as retail providers themselves. 

This excludes a number of publicly owned networks and utilities from participating. Electric cooperaties like Consolidated Electric Cooperative would be prohibited. So would municipal networks like FairlawnGig and the Medina County Fiber Network (MCFN). FairlawnGig was just named to Broadband Communities’ Fiber-to-the-Home Top 100 list for 2020, and placed third in the North Central Region in PC Mag’s list of best-performing ISPs in 2020. It has also created hundreds of jobs in the area and consistently returns high customer satisfaction rates. MCFN, which we featured in a podcast episode in December of last year, continues to invest in Medina County and provide gigabit speeds to those living in north-central Ohio. 

The Ohio Farm Bureau, the Ohio Rural Development Alliance, and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) have all come out in support of the bill, though the MORPC has suggested revisions so that non-profits, municipal governments, and electric cooperatives be allowed to participate. The commission also argued for higher minimum speed standards for projects that receive funds.

Digital Deserts in the Buckeye State

At least a million Ohioans across 300,000 households lack Internet access presently. HB 13 is intended to address this need as well as fulfill key goals of the state’s Broadband Strategy [pdf] initiative. The state faces particular childhood health and economic obstacles, according to the study, and broadband expansion is supposed to be a key component to remedying those challenges. In 2019 the Buckeye Hills Regional Council issued a report which found that 80-90% of rural households in the state had no access to broadband services, and more than ¾ lacked access to connections of 25/3Mbps or higher. 

The bill passed 81-8 and was sent on to the Senate on June 17. On June 30 was referred to the Energy and Public Utilities Committee. If signed into law, it would be funded through biennium by funds from the Ohio Development Services Agency.

Read the full bill here.

Map courtesy of InnovateOhio's Broadband Mapping Project

Inline image by Max Mustermann from Pixabay