Waiting for Broadband is only funny in memes.
If you’re among the estimated one million Ohioans with shoddy internet or no internet access at all, you may feel left behind by the Information Age. Broadband access is as essential as running water, yet some 300,000 Ohio households are without it, mainly in rural areas.
Ohio House Bill 13 proposes to change that. This residential broadband expansion legislation would extend high speed internet throughout the state, most importantly to unserved areas that cable providers currently don’t go.
Rural areas have been left behind in the digital era
The bill’s sponsor, Representative Rick Carfagna, (R- Genoa Township) knows a little something about broadband. Carfagna worked in the cable industry for 14 years as a liaison to local governments before being elected to the Ohio House, where he represents the eastern half of Delaware County and all of Knox County.
“I understand the economics of the broadband issue, and the frustrations behind not being able to get these facilities and these resources out to unserved areas,” said Carfagna, who noted that one of the main barriers in rural areas is a low population density. “Broadband providers simply don’t offer service where there aren’t enough customers to pay for it,” he added.
Along with Carfagna, Representative Michael O’Brien, (D-Warren) is a sponsor on the broadband bill.
The Proposed legislation has big goals
Carfagna said that HB 13 was pretty modest starting out, but that it is in the process of being modified to meet some more ambitious goals. At the direction of Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, (R-Glenford) the legislation is being made more inclusive and robust.
“Speaker Householder recognizes this as a serious problem and something we should make a public policy priority,” said Carfagna. “He designated this as one of our caucus’ priority bills.”
“The thought is, if we’re going to do this, let’s do it right,” said Carfagna. “Let’s be ambitious. Let’s be expansive. It will be significantly different from the original bill,” added the representative. “It will be bigger and better.”
Expanded broadband means a more competitive Ohio
Access to broadband has been shown to increase job growth and educational opportunities, it benefits small businesses and even improves healthcare, explained Carfagna. Telemedicine is an example of how a strong internet infrastructure can improve healthcare in Ohio, he said.
Much of rural Ohio and small pocket areas of Ohio’s inner cities are lacking reliable and affordable broadband, said Cera.
Many other states already have statewide broadband access
HB 13 is currently in the House Finance Committee, of which Representative Jack Cera, (D-Bellaire) is a ranking member. Cera represents Monroe and Jefferson counties and parts of Belmont County in East Ohio, some of the most underserved and rural areas of the state. Cera said he is very supportive of any efforts to expand broadband. The challenge, he said, is how to go about it. “Broadband expansion has been done in other states with great results and it can be successful here too,” said the legislator. “Technology is going to continue to evolve and improve rapidly and it’s important that we keep pace.”
“Quality internet access is necessary, from kids, to business, to health care,” Cera added. “It’s a shame that the parts of Ohio that need help the most, Appalachia, has the biggest problem with it.”
Cera said cellular coverage also needs a serious look. “In the counties that I represent, we have whole communities that have no access to cellular service.”
Grants would help pay for broadband expansion
Cera said that state and federal grants would likely help fund a statewide broadband undertaking. “You could probably spread a program out over a few years and it wouldn’t be very much per year,” said Cera. “We really need to get moving on this. Everybody needs to come together to come up with the best solutions.”
A similar bill, HB 281, passed easily in the House with 92 votes during the last general assembly.
“Most, if not all, the representatives get the issue,” said Carfagna. “Every district, I don’t care how urban or suburban or affluent you are, you’re going to have unserved and underserved households. This is a legitimate issue that cuts across all demographics, though it’s obviously more prevalent in the rural areas.”
Lack of broadband access negatively affects every district
The proposed legislation would go hand in hand with the Ohio Broadband Strategy, created under the direction of Lt. Governor Jon Husted. Husted’s plan calls for aggressively expanding and enhancing the state’s broadband network. If approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it will qualify local governments in Ohio for funding through the federal ReConnectprogram.
The representative said the cost of the project is to be determined by Governor Mike Devine’s office.
“I don’t have a dollar amount at this point,” said Carfagna. “The governor’s office is working on that. When we release a revised bill, I think that the amount that will be inserted in there will be a meaningful amount to do some ambitious projects.”
Overcoming cost hurdle of statewide broadband access
The challenge of a statewide broadband expansion is determining the “cost hurdle” that has prevented cable companies from getting to end users, the representative explained. This funding gap would be the difference between the total amount of money a broadband provider calculates is necessary to construct the last miles of a specific broadband network and the total amount of money that the provider has determined is the maximum amount that is cost effective.
“I’m convinced that if the bill does pass and is signed into law, it will be a success,” Carfagna added. “It will prove its worth and it will produce real tangible results.”