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Ohio Approves $20 Million for Broadband Expansion

Gov. Mike DeWine has signed a law that will create the Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion Grant Program in hopes of improving Internet access for residents and decreasing the digital divide.

(TNS) — On Monday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed into law a bill that could have major implications to counties like Scioto where broadband access remains an issue.

Through legislation sponsored by state Reps. Rick Carfagna, R- Genoa Township and Brian Stewart, R- Ashville, House Bill 2 creates the Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion Grant Program.

"Broadband is the great social equalizer of our time, it will bring employment, education, health care and commerce opportunities presently denied to so many throughout Ohio," said Carfagna in a press release earlier this week. "Nearly 1 million Ohioans lack access to reliable high-speed internet service simply because of where they reside. We need to change that through cooperative efforts between the state and broadband providers, and House Bill 2 is the first step in doing so."

Of those Ohioans, considerable portions exist in southern Ohio. According to data from the Ohio Lt. Gov.'s Office, more than 16,500 or 22 percent of Scioto County residents are without internet. The situation is bleaker in neighboring Pike and Adams counties, where 39 percent and 57 percent respectively do not have internet in their homes.

$20 million will go toward the grant program under the Development Services Agency, which will oversee the reception and review application process. From there, the Broadband Expansion Program Authority will have the final say in which projects are eligible to grant funding.

The authority will be composed of the DSA Director and Director of InnovateOhio or their designees, and three appointed members, all of which would serve four-year terms with reappointments a possibility. The Speaker of the House, Senate President, and the governor would make those appointments.

The bill has the support of the Scioto County Commissioners, who see it as a way to create middle mile broadband infrastructure- states such as West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and Indiana already possessing the utility.

"The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for increased broadband access as children transitioned to learning at home and many workers were encouraged to work remotely," reads in-part of the board's letter to Senate Financial Institutions and Technology Committee Chairman Sen. Steve Wilson, R- Maineville, adding, "Allowing electric utilities to apply to the Development Services Agency for grant dollars to construct middle mile broadband infrastructure will drive down the cost of projects and allow internet service providers to focus their investments on providing access to Ohioans currently without high-speed internet."

Regional organizations such as Ohio Southeast Economic Development also see the bill as a win for the area, one that may alleviate or at least decrease the effects of the digital divide.

"Appalachian Ohio has long suffered from socio-economic disadvantages that stem from an economy that did not adapt like the rest of Ohio," said OSED President Mike Jacoby in a statement. "Developing a more diverse economy and creating more information-based jobs is critical. That can only happen built upon a foundation of widely available, reliable high-speed internet."

The bill had widespread support in both the Senate and House, Democrats and Republicans, urban and rural legislators. Only four votes went against in the House's latest vote earlier this month, compared to 91 Reps. in favor. Scioto County's Sen. Terry Johnson, R- McDermott and Rep. Brian Baldridge, R- Winchester, supported the legislation and were co-sponsors.

Lt. Gov. Jon Husted told the Portsmouth Daily Times in a one-on-one interview earlier this year that broadband has proved to be an essential function for those wishing to compete in the modern world.

"Both Democrats and Republicans are having constituents that are being left behind," said Husted in an article from the Times' 2021 "Progress" edition. "This is the bridge that pulls them together because whether you're in a poor urban area or a very rural area and your constituents don't have access to the internet or can't afford it; you're united by that common problem."

Further broadband funding could come through the state budget, where House Bill 110 set aside $190 million toward the ORBEGP. The bill was introduced to the Senate in April after passing in a 70-27 House vote.

"If you can say anything good came from COVID, it is the broadband," said Commissioner Cathy Coleman during the board's April 22 meeting. "It's absolutely going to make a difference."

(c)2021 The Portsmouth Daily Times (Portsmouth, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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