As the legislature wraps up its work this week before recessing until after the November election, it has become apparent that the once promising effort to expand Ohio’s abysmal broadband access has stalled. This is unfortunate as Ohio desperately needs to expand its broadband infrastructure given that 1 million residents currently lack access. This need is especially dire in rural areas where nearly one third of residents are without broadband access.
Recently, there was reason for optimism due to the House’s overwhelming passage of HB 281 and HB 378 this spring. These bipartisan bills passed by a margin of 92-5 and 85-11 respectively. While it was widely assumed that the Senate would follow suit before summer break and enact at least one of these bills, this has not been the case.
SB 225 – the Senate’s version of HB 378 – has received two hearings this year, the most recent on June 5. This bill would create the Ohio Broadband Development Program, allocating $100 million in voter-approved Third Frontier funds towards making grant funding available for 2019 & 2020. These funds would be made available to local governments, private businesses, and others to build broadband infrastructure in areas currently without access.
Unlike with the previous bill, the Senate does not have its own version of HB 281. It received one hearing on June 19th. HB 281 would make a modest appropriation of $2 million dollars to establish a “last mile” residential broadband expansion program.
Why the hesitancy to move forward on bills that received such overwhelming bipartisan support in the House? Reports indicate that SB 225 stalled due to the reluctance of Senate Republicans to tap Third Frontier dollars to fund the Ohio Broadband Development Program, preferring instead to spend it on autonomous car research or other high tech investments. This fails to explain why HB 281 has not gained traction, as it relies on previously allocated funds to pay for the program, not Third Frontier bonds.
Now that the Senate has decided not to move forward on these bills, it is likely that the earliest we could see any movement is November. For the 1 million Ohioans currently lacking access to broadband, that wait has already been long enough. Ohio needs a robust digital network in order to compete in the 21st century economy. It is past time that our legislature take steps to make that happen.