After realizing how having poor internet service during the pandemic has affected constituents, the Ohio State House of Representatives passed a bill that will expand broadband services to underserved parts of Ohio.
Ohio House Bill 2, passed in February, is designed to bring more broadband service to Southeast Ohio and other underserved parts of Ohio through a grant program. These grants would incentivize internet providers by awarding money to make up for the cost of providing service to areas outside current coverage.
“Anybody who meets the definition of a broadband provider basically will make an application to the state and say, ‘Here is the area of the state's predetermine map where we know there are residents who are unserved, and we can serve, say, 100, 200, 300 households, but we really can't make a business case for extending that service. Here is the difference between our model that we use to determine whether we're going to provide service. Here's the cost difference that we have to make up,’” Rep. Brian Stewart, R-78 District, said. “And if they can kind of show that, then this grant program is designed to fill that funding gap so that those projects get done.”
Unlike the FCC’s Rural Digital Action Fund, this program would have a more specific map of which places in Ohio need service. Additionally, this program will not limit which providers can be in a certain area.
“In fact … one of the arguments that has been made to support the bill is, we would like to see competition,” Stewart said. “If Company A has typically been the main provider in the area based on that FCC auction, but they're not serving a lot of households that need to be served, our bill would allow Company B to propose to go provide service. And, if Company B can show that they can cover a sizable chunk of the project, they would be eligible to get funding to do the rest.”
If passed in the Senate, the bill, which was passed by the House with an emergency clause, would take effect immediately due to that clause, Stewart said.
“There's some nuts and bolts housekeeping work that has to occur on our side and technically you can't really do any of that work until the bill is actually law, so we want to pass the emergency clause so all that work can be started immediately,” Stewart said.
Athens Mayor Steve Patterson is concerned this bill, if it passes through the Senate, would be too good to be true.
“I'm hopeful, but I'm also cautiously optimistic because we've been down this path in the past, you know, decades ago,” Patterson said. “And a lot of the promises just never came to fruition.”
Despite the cautious optimism, Patterson is happy to see that there are steps being taken toward bringing broadband service to underserved areas in Southeast Ohio.
“To me, it feels like we're finally moving in a more forward direction with making sure that broadband is being deployed down in Southeast Ohio. Certainly Athens County, Meigs County, Vinton County, Morgan County, Perry County,” Patterson said. “Again, there's absolute need for having that here in our region.”
If the bill is passed by the Senate in the next few weeks, residents could expect to start receiving service during the latter half of this year.