Ohio's Broadband Access Expansion Program Survives State Budget Process
A program to help get affordable high-speed internet access to more Ohioans survived weeks of budget negotiations and an anonymous amendment in the Ohio Senate that would have killed the program and gutted existing municipal broadband initiatives.
Lawmakers voted early Tuesday morning to approve a two-year, $74 billion state budget package that includes $250 million, as originally requested by Gov. Mike DeWine, to expand broadband internet access in underserved areas of the state.
The House version of the bill proposed a $190 million budget for the grant program, which is aimed at filling in “cost gaps” for companies to expand broadband infrastructure in the state to areas that do not have internet access.
The Senate version would have not only eliminated all of the funding, it would have essentially banned municipalities from offering internet access.
Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) had doubts about the program’s potential, but later said he had been convinced it would be a good use of funds. Much of the state’s surprise $3 billion surplus from COVID-19 stimulus funding will go to infrastructure improvements, including broadband access expansion.
In towns that already have a broadband program, like Fairlawn, many have been holding their breath for weeks.
“This is an important utility that we put in,” said Fairlawn Director of Public Services Ernie Staten. “Our residents want it. Our businesses want it. We've served it to them.”
The town tried to attract a telecom company to set up affordable broadband service nearly a decade ago, Staten said, but no one was interested in serving Fairlawn’s 7,500 residents.
“We really wanted to just bring the service to our residents, to our businesses, to make that happen. And they declined,” Staten said.
The city opted to pursue offering broadband on its own, like a utility, without the help of a traditional internet service provider. It began operating Fairlawn Gig in 2013, though legal wrangling suspended the service briefly. Now, residents and businesses in the town and surrounding area can get the fiber optic connectivity they want through the city-run broadband service.
An estimated one million Ohioans do not have access to high-speed internet service at home.