Feb. 21—COLUMBUS — Online learning, Zoom meetings, telehealth appointments, and even online funerals during this age of coronavirus have made the digital divide wider than ever, putting legislation to bridge the gap on the fast track at the Ohio Statehouse after several false starts.
"Internet is not a luxury in 2021," said state Rep. Brian Stewart (R., Ashville), a sponsor of House Bill 2. "It's a necessity. More than a million Ohioans lack access to reliable internet. ... Before COVID we already had issues with students unable to access the internet to do their homework, businesses that couldn't sell their products online, [and] patients who can't access the same telehealth opportunities as their fellow Ohioans who live in better-connected communities."
Coronavirus simply exacerbated these problems as schools and many businesses were closed, most Ohioans were told to stay home, and employees had to work from home.
The bill would provide grants to telecommunications providers to complete the "last mile" deployment of broadband to residences — mostly in rural Ohio — that have limited if any internet access. An estimated 300,000 households in the state lack access.
The grants, to be disbursed through a panel under the Ohio Development Services Agency, are designed to tip the scale in favor of completion of lines to harder-to-reach homes when it might otherwise make no financial sense.
"Through the application process they have to be able to show that they would not be able to make that investment on their own, that there is a cost gap in place that simply cannot be met under normal business practices," said state Sen. Rob McColley (R., Napoleon), who sponsored a similar bill that cleared the Senate.
Companies that already plan to deploy broadband in an area could challenge the issuance of grants to competitors who might use government money to undercut them.
House Bill 2, sponsored by Reps. Stewart and Rick Carfagna (R., Westerville), passed the Ohio House of Representatives 91-5 on Thursday, with the entire northwest Ohio delegation on board. Mr. McColley's Senate Bill 8 passed that chamber unanimously nearly two weeks ago.
The bills are top priorities this session after the effort ran out of time in December's lame-duck session. The chambers will now have to decide which version reaches the desk of Gov. Mike DeWine, who recently proposed putting $210 million behind the concept as part of the next two-year budget.
Some supporters, however, noted these bills do nothing to address the affordability question. Many Ohioans can't afford high-speed internet service even though broadband cables may run past their homes.
"The city of Cleveland is the worst-connected city in America, an industry report shows," state Sen. Sandra Williams (D., Cleveland) said. "...If we're expecting people to go to school virtually, if we're expecting people to attend doctor's appointments virtually, and if we're expecting people to work virtually, we need to do something to make sure that they can afford broadband in their homes."
The bills faced no opposing testimony in hearings and received a broad swath of support from the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, Ohio Poverty Law Center, Ohio Farm Bureau, local governments, and other organizations.
Ryan Mack, vice president of the Defiance County Commissioners, said internet connectivity is a "game of geography."
"This bill correctly remains tech-neutral because in places like northwest Ohio, the ability to just lay fiber to every home is simply not financially feasible even with strong grant programs," he said in testimony submitted to the Senate Energy and Public Utilities Committee.
"As the state looks forward, an all-of-the-above strategy must be employed, combining a strong backbone of fiber optic lines to towers that broadcast high-speed broadband into farmhouses and along fields all over the rural Ohio countryside," he said.
First Published February 20, 2021, 1:00pm