Law­mak­ers work to im­prove broad­band ac­cess

The Columbus Dispatch - - Metro&state - By Jim Siegel jsiegel@dis­patch.com @phront­page

Ef­forts to en­sure that ev­ery Ohio house­hold has broad­band in­ter­net ac­cess is get­ting se­ri­ous at­ten­tion at the State­house, in­clud­ing a bi­par­ti­san pro­posal to ear­mark $50 mil­lion to ad­dress a prob­lem im­pact­ing ru­ral ar­eas.

While 92 per­cent of Ohioans have ac­cess to high-speed in­ter­net, that still leaves about 300,000 ru­ral house­holds with­out de­cent con­nec­tiv­ity and pock­ets of un­served homes still ex­ist even in more pop­u­lated ar­eas.

“It’s prob­a­bly the No. 1 con­stituent is­sue that I get con­tacted about,” said Rep. Ryan Smith, R-Bid­well, who rep­re­sents a por­tion of south­ern Ohio.

“I see it hold­ing us back from an ed­u­ca­tion stand­point, eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, health, any num­ber of things. My con­stituents are very frus­trated by it.”

Smith, who chairs the House Fi­nance Com­mit­tee where his bill is be­ing heard, is joined by Rep. Jack Cera, D-Bel­laire, in propos­ing the use of $50 mil­lion in Third Fron­tier funds to as­sist lo­cal en­ti­ties in ex­pand­ing broad­band in­fra­struc­ture.

The same bill also was in­tro­duced in the Se­nate, spon­sored by a bi­par­ti­san team of Sens. John Ek­lund, R-Chardon, and Joe Schi­avoni, D-Board­man.

“It’s a big deal for a lot of dif­fer­ent rea­sons,” Smith said, not­ing that in ad­di­tion to con­cerns like peo­ple try­ing to take on­line classes, real es­tate agents say it’s a ma­jor is­sue when they are try­ing to sell homes with­out con­nec­tions.

The House Fi­nance Com­mit­tee also has been hold­ing hear­ings on a pro­posal by Rep. Rick Carfagna, R-Wester­ville, to give com­mu­ni­ties in­cen­tives to use their video ser­vice provider fees, with help from county and state funds, to help ex­pand broad­band for a mile or so to clus­ters of un­served homes.

Carfagna said the idea was born of his 14 years in the ca­ble in­dus­try, which in­cludes an un­der­stand­ing of when providers de­cide it’s not fi­nan­cially fea­si­ble to run broad­band ac­cess.

The big cov­er­age holes are in ru­ral ar­eas, but Carfagna said more-af­flu­ent and pop­u­lated vil­lages and town­ships also can have pock­ets of un­served homes that his bill could tar­get.

If the lo­cal com­mu­nity and the county each agree to cover one-third of the cost needed to make the ex­pan­sion fea­si­ble for the provider, the state would kick in the fi­nal one-third.

“By pool­ing re­sources and hav­ing all par­ties place some skin in the game, the ex­ist­ing fi­nan­cial hur­dles be­come far less in­tim­i­dat­ing,” Carfagna said.

“This is the 21st cen­tury. We need to get with the times. You can’t get a job with­out ap­ply­ing on­line.”

Con­nect Ohio, a non­profit that works to ex­pand broad­band con­nec­tions, is sup­port­ing both bills. “I have talked and in­ter­acted with those who are di­rectly im­pacted by lack of broad­band ac­cess. They are feel­ing frus­trated, iso­lated, and even for­got­ten,” said Stu John­son, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor.

He es­pe­cially likes Smith and Cera’s pro­posal, which is mod­eled after Min­nesota’s Border-to-Border Broad­band pro­gram. It awarded $26 mil­lion for 39 projects this year, matched with $34 mil­lion in pri­vate and lo­cal money.

Over four years, Min­nesota has in­vested just over $85 mil­lion, serv­ing nearly 40,000 homes, busi­nesses and com­mu­nity in­sti­tu­tions.

“We have part­nered with 46 dif­fer­ent providers and de­ploy­ment groups to work to­gether to ex­pand into ar­eas where there wasn’t pre­vi­ous de­vel­op­ment ac­tiv­ity,” said Danna MacKen­zie, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Min­nesota’s Of­fice of Broad­band De­vel­op­ment. “We con­sider that a good sign of suc­cess that our poli­cies and pro­grams are align­ing to achieve the re­sults we are hop­ing for.”

Asked what ad­vice she would give Ohio, MacKen­zie said, “The value of hav­ing providers and com­mu­ni­ties both at the ta­ble when de­vel­op­ing the pro­gram de­tails can’t be over­stated.”

Smith said he would like to see the bills passed next year. He en­vi­sions the broad­band pro­gram work­ing sim­i­lar to the way elec­tric co­op­er­a­tives brought power to ru­ral ar­eas of Ohio in the 1930s.

John­son said 13 states have al­ready en­acted sim­i­lar pro­grams.

“We’re get­ting left be­hind.”

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