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Broadband funding effort advances

Broadband grant funding from the state to complete “last mile” connections may be closer to a reality in Ohio.

State Representative Jay Edwards announced Wednesday that a bill launched in the Ohio House of Representatives on the heels of coronavirus sending schoolchildren and adults to work from home, without reliable or speedy internet, has moved on to the Ohio Senate.

“This is an especially important issue in Southeast Ohio, where topography and low population density have been impediments to expansion,” said Edwards.

He explained the proposed House Bill 13 is designed to help offset construction cost hurdles by offering a grant program to stretch local, rural dollars further into the buildout of broadband service to unserved households statewide.

When Southeast Ohio Broadband Cooperative founding member David Brown, of Rainbow, heard the bill had passed the house Wednesday, he was excited.

“It passed?” he said with a sigh of relief. “That’s outstanding, that’s incredible news.”

Brown immediately went to look over the legislative text, noting he last looked at the bill when it went before the House Finance Committee.

“This went from a 45-page bill to a 71-page bill, looks like more accounting has been added to it,” said Brown. “I’ll need to sit and digest this.”

But highlights Wednesday centered on language differentiating roles and accountability, and the specific definitions of what kinds of entities are eligible for the $20 million grant program to be overseen by the Ohio Department of Commerce by the creation of a “broadband expansion authority, which shall consist of the director of commerce or the director’s designee, the chief investment officer of JobsOhio or (designee) and three other members as follows: one member appointed by the president of the Senate, one member appointed by the speaker of the House of Representatives and one member appointed by the governor.”

That governing board, the present iteration of the bill reads, requires the appointed members to have expertise in broadband infrastructure and technology and are to be designated to track annual applications by geographic location, right-of-way usage and the speeds provided or upgraded by grantees.

“This is going to help a lot of smaller carriers if it makes it through the Ohio Senate,” said Brown. “(But) I’d love to have seen it stated that if an entity (applying for state grant funds) had filed for bankruptcy that they’d be ineligible for the funds.”

The bill also notes specific definitions for what a broadband “facilitator” versus a broadband “provider” are, and what they shall not be.

“A broadband facilitator means an electric distribution utility (like Washington Electric Cooperative) that applies to construct, and constructs, broadband infrastructure to serve priority unserved areas but does not offer or provide broadband service to retail customers.”

Brown explained this would allow the electric cooperative to maintain ownership of its electric poles and allow for fiber lines hung in parallel but not require retail service to individual households for internet service.

A broadband provider, the bill defines, would be an entity capable of providing that final service through:

A video service provider;

A telecommunications provider;

A satellite broadcasting service provider;

A wireless service provider.

But, it shall not be a facilitator, electric distribution utility nor “a governmental entity” or “quasi-governmental entity.

The bill moved on to the Ohio Senate after a vote of 81-8.

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