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"Last mile" rural broadband legislation moving forward with ISP applications

Published By The Athens News on September 7, 2021
Jay Edwards In The News

Through a state grant program that opened on Monday, internet service providers can receive grants to connect homes and businesses to broadband services.

The Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion Grant program — established in House Bill 2, sponsored by Rep. Rick Carfagna, R-Genoa Township, and Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville — is a key component of the administration's comprehensive broadband strategy that aims to build a high-tech broadband network throughout the state, according to a press release announcing the grants' availability.

Included in Ohio's 2022-2023 operating budget, the program will provide $250 million in grants to ISPs for broadband projects that improve high-speed internet access in unserved and underserved areas of Ohio, according to the release.

The grant program will be used to fund and subsidize “last mile” broadband construction — the last portion of a physical broadband network that connects an area to the broader network.

“This is something where we have broad consensus in the state of Ohio — Democrats, Republicans, rural, urban and suburban areas,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said during a signing ceremony Monday at the Amanda Elementary School in Middletown.

Projects will provide service access of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload to residents in areas that do not have a provider that can supply service at this speed, the release said. Those specifications are the Federal Communication Commission's minimum standards for broadband, set in 2015.

Last spring, however, four U.S. senators, including Rob Portman of Ohio and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, wrote a letter advocating for a new baseline download and upload speeds of 100 Mbps. The letter — addressed to the FCC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Economic Council — said the higher standard should be applied uniformly across all government agencies.

"There is no reason federal funding to rural areas should not support the type of speeds used by households in typical well-served urban and suburban areas," the joint letter said.

Athens County falls into an area of Ohio with “unserved” portions, meaning some do not have internet access by means of a retail wireline or wireless broadband service that delivers internet access at speeds of at least 10 megabits per second, the Logan Daily News previously reported. 

"This program is a key investment in Ohio's future as we work toward eliminating the digital divide in our state," DeWine said in a statement. “Connecting our rural and underserved areas with reliable internet service will help bring these communities up to speed with the rest of the state and will be a driving force for economic growth."

Ohio Rep. Jay Edwards, R-Nelsonville, who cosponsored the legislation, previously told The Athens Messenger via text that he believed the new law would benefit professionals, schools, parents and “frankly all Ohioans.”

“Access to information means access to opportunity,” Edwards said via text. “It’s a top issue for Southeast Ohio and this legislation will help move us forward.”

In a statement to an Ohio House Committee, Stewart praised the legislation’s ability to help Ohioans.

“The time has come for providers to sharpen their pencils and put forth their best effort and best technologies to build out their networks,” Stewart said. “From speaking to my constituents, small businesses, large business, schools, and community organizations, and even to unserved members of my own family, I am confident that the deployment of broadband infrastructure to any of the numerous Ohioans left behind will be deeply meaningful and enhance their quality of life.”

Innovate Ohio, Gov. DeWine's technology initiative, estimates that 300,000 Ohio households, representing approximately 1 million Ohioans, do not have broadband internet access.

That figure jibes with a 2019 study of eight southeastern Ohio counties conducted by the Buckeye Hills Regional Council in partnership with Ohio University’s Voinovich School for Leadership and Public Service and the Athens County Economic Development Council. The study was funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission.

The study found that 80% to 90% of households (in areas with 20 or fewer households per square mile) have no access to broadband. The council estimated that more than 340,000 households, approximately 1 million residents, in Ohio do not have any internet access.

“This grant program is designed to help our local private and public sector partners expand high-speed, affordable internet in areas of Ohio that are presently underserved,” said Lt. Governor Jon Husted. “To be a part of the modern economy, education and healthcare systems, you need to have access to reliable internet, and this effort aims to close the digital divide.”

Grant applications are open until early November. Proposals will be reviewed by the Ohio Department of Development and BroadbandOhio, created in March 2020 to coordinate all broadband projects in Ohio. Applications that pass the review will be sent to the Ohio Broadband Expansion Program Authority for approval and funding.

More information on the Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion Grant is available on the Broadband.Ohio.Gov. 

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