Editor's note: The Ohio State Assembly voted Tuesday morning to provide full funding for Governor Mike DeWine's broadband expansion request.
One of the lessons learned from the pandemic is the importance of high-speed Internet services for business and online learning. But in Ohio, an anonymous amendment proposed in the state budget may prevent efforts to increase access.
Governor Mike DeWine hopes to increase broadband grant funding by $250 million in the next two years. But the House of Representatives recommends reducing these funds to $190 million, while the Senate recommends that they be eliminated altogether.
The Senate amendment will also restrict communities from providing their own broadband services. One of these cities is Fairlawn, where officials have been committed to providing municipal broadband options since 2013.
"This is an important public undertaking that we have invested in," said Ernie Staten, director of public services. "Our residents want it. Our business needs it. We already serve them."
Staten said the town tried to attract a telecommunications company to build affordable broadband services nearly a decade ago, but no one was interested in serving Fairlawn's 7,500 residents.
"We really want to provide services to our residents and our businesses to achieve this goal. They refused," Steidan said.
The city chose to provide broadband on its own, just like public utilities, without the help of traditional Internet service providers. It started operating Fairlawn Gig in 2013, but officials had to defend the service in court and temporarily suspended it until 2016. But now, residents of the town and surrounding areas can get the fiber connections they want locally.
"We just want to provide the best service possible," Staten said. "If there is money in it, then the money will be returned to the system to lower prices or upgrade services."
Staten said that based on a large number of surveys since its implementation, Fairlawn Gig has a high user support rate. Staten said that many businesses and residents rely on broadband as much as they rely on other utilities such as electricity or water, and municipal options can meet their needs.
DeWine is trying to extend the same type of Internet access to other underserved areas in Ohio. A statewide initiative launched in East Cleveland in April uses public-private partnerships to provide broadband to residents who need affordable, high-quality alternatives to traditional telecommunications companies.
Starting in East Cleveland, a replica of the tower to increase broadband access through DeWine's grant program. [Taylor Haggerty / Ideastream Public Media]
Bryan Mauk of PCs for People, a national organization dedicated to providing hardware and services for the East Cleveland pilot project, said that amendments to the Senate budget version do not allow this partnership to continue.
"It's interesting. I mean, three months ago, this was considered best, best practice and public-private partnership or how we get the job done," Mok said. "And this is what we need to save."
Governor Jon Husted said the state is considering providing additional broadband projects for future funding. He said the budget amendment is worrying.
"When you take out the money and say that you don't want any public-private partnership to solve the problem, it will definitely make people stop and wonder what the real motive is here," Hirst said.
However, supporters of the amendment believe that municipalities should not focus on areas where Internet service providers are already willing to work. Ohio Senate Speaker Matt Hoffman (R-Lima) stated that, instead, work to increase connectivity should be concentrated in areas where it is most needed.
"If they use taxes to compete with the private sector, that's not what we want," Hoffman said. "We want those local governments to go to places where there is no service."
But according to Sean Gonsalves of the local self-reliance association's community broadband network project, competing with private providers is not a bad thing. Gonsalves said that municipal broadband usually brings higher quality connections and lower prices. He said that restrictive measures like the Senate budget amendment are not meant to improve broadband services or access.
"These bills are designed to protect regional monopolies, mainly cable companies, but also telecommunications companies that are Internet service providers," Goncalves said. "They are seeking to prevent any competition for their services."
Goncalves said that other states have imposed restrictions or outright bans on broadband access in the past, but Ohio is the first state to do so in about 10 years. He said the pandemic has actually promoted the wider provision of broadband services in some places, including Arkansas and Washington.
Gonsalves said that Ohio’s amendment was included in the budget and could easily be overlooked, which illustrates this point.
"Anyone we saw in the Senate was unwilling to stand up and say that I submitted the budget proposal," he said. "I think this is a good sign that this is a bad proposal."
Ohio State Policy Affairs senior researcher Amanda Woodrum said that the proposed amendment shows that corporate tax cuts take precedence over residents’ needs.
"These are the communities that have been hit hardest by the pandemic and COVID," Woodrum said. "We should focus our investment on areas where poverty is concentrated, rather than pulling away the carpet from under them."
Staten said this could be a bad business for a city like Fairlawn. He said that reliable and affordable municipal broadband access has brought 20 companies and approximately 750 jobs to the region and improved the local real estate market.
"The effect is incredible. School education, job market," he said. "When you think we are inland, the city really grows, if you want. We haven't seen much growth. It really makes a difference."
The Greater Cleveland Digital Equity Alliance calls on Ohio lawmakers to remove the proposed amendments to the municipal broadband plan.
"[The Alliance] is concerned that the current form of HB 110 will prevent Cuyahoga County, Cleveland City, and many other local jurisdictions from implementing much-needed community broadband plans and public-private broadband partnerships," the statement said, "even preventing us from using federal Funding plans to address the county’s digital divide through broadband deployment, broadband adoption, and digital inclusion efforts."
The coalition, which includes the city of Cleveland and other local stakeholders, also called for the restoration of the $190 million in funding recommended by the House of Representatives and expansion of funding for local projects.
The House of Representatives and the Senate must coordinate their respective budget proposals by Wednesday, including determining how much money will be used to expand broadband grants and what restrictions will be adopted.