Bill could hamper cities’ plans for community Wi-Fi, broadband

Local governments’ ability to provide broadband internet access to residents — a high priority for both Gov. Mike DeWine and the Ohio House — would be restricted in several ways by budget language the Ohio Senate has approved.

Under the Senate amendments, local governments could own community networks or offer Wi-Fi to their residents only if their areas are not already served by Internet provider companies. The Senate language also would restrict how federal funds could be used for those projects.

Greg Lawson, a researcher with the Buckeye Institute, said the restrictions are needed because at times these networks are not successful and taxpayers end up subsidizing the entire project. He says in many places where municipal networks are being installed, broadband access already exists, so the municipalities do not need to step in.

“That’s where we really think there’s a problem,” Lawson said. “We already have providers that are there. What you’re functionally doing is using tax dollars or debt money that eventually has to be paid back with tax dollars to lay this stuff.”

A conference committee of state representatives and senators is currently negotiating and must resolve the differences between the two chambers’ budget bills this week.

DeWine’s administration is advocating the state budget provide $190 million the House proposed for expanding residential broadband and discard the Senate’s proposed restrictions for local government-owned broadband networks.

DeWine said these projects were vital to make sure every Ohioan has access to broadband.

“Some of the proposed changes would be simply devastating to expanding broadband in the state,” he said.

Ohio Municipal League and the Ohio Mayors Alliance sent a bipartisan letter to DeWine, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted and legislative leaders, listing more than 20 officials from Southwest Ohio opposing the bill’s current form.

Those communities that have “very serious concerns” with the broadband provision in HB 110 include Beavercreek, Centerville, Kettering, Mason, Middletown, Oakwood, Piqua, Springboro, Troy, West Carrollton and Xenia.

The letter dated June 16 says the broadband provision is one of two of the bill’s items that “threaten … important cooperation at a critical time when we should all be working to ensure that Ohio has the strongest possible economic recovery.”

The bill’s language “will effectively prohibit government-supported broadband networks. One of the lessons from this pandemic is the need for strong, affordable and accessible internet access for all our residents,” the letter says.

“The provision added to HB 110 limits government-owned broadband networks to only ‘underserved’ areas and does not address this emerging need, which would be a significant setback for Ohio.

“Not only would it end existing municipal-run networks, it would also prohibit future efforts of local governments to provide affordable and accessible broadband access to our residents,” according to the letter. “Given the importance of broadband access on economic development, we also believe this provision will hurt Ohio’s economic growth.”

Earlier this month, the Dayton City Commission approved an informal resolution condemning the proposed state prohibition on government-owned broadband networks. Dayton was planning to build a fiber network using CARES Act funds but Dayton City Manager Shelley Dickstein recently said the pilot project did not move forward because it did not receive an adequate proposal from potential providers.

The coronavirus crisis revealed inequities in wireless access across the city, and many children and families had inadequate broadband strength and speed to engage in virtual learning and other important activities, said Dayton City Commissioner Darryl Fairchild.

“There are areas in our city that aren’t invested in because businesses won’t have access to the broadband they need to be able to compete,” he said.

Husted said in a tweet on June 11 that the state “is in desperate need of broadband expansion.” The tweet included a map that showed e swatches of Ohio that do not have access to quality internet services so residents there they can work from home and do school from home at the same time.

The gaps include parts of eastern Greene County, north Darke County and the east side of Warren County.

Xenia City Manager Brent Merrimack said Xenia approached major internet companies about additional build-out in Xenia, but the companies indicated they aren’t interested.

“What the legislation being proposed right now would do would create a placeholder for those large firms to be able to at their leisure, when they feel profit motivated, to build out in our community,” he said. “Short of that our hands will be tied in terms of trying to expand services to our residents.”

Yellow Springs Village Manager Josué Salmerón said connecting people to WiFi is a key to the future. In the past year, he said, most people have had to use the internet for something, whether that be a doctor’s appointment, school, work or watching village meetings online.

Lawson said there are places in Ohio that do not have access to any internet providers and getting access to those places is important. He said this amendment would not block that from happening.

Yellow Springs, using $30,000 of CARES Act funding, installed Wi-Fi downtown last fall. Springboro, in partnership with the Warren County Port Authority, is investing about $2.4 million to construct a 17-mile broadband fiber network throughout the city to provide high-speed internet service to residents and businesses.

Construction is already under way to build the infrastructure, but the city will not be providing the internet services, city officials said. However, they are hoping their new fiber network will attract additional internet service providers.

City Manager Chris Pozzuto said the city does not believe the amendment will affect them. He said the legislation targets “municipally run (or provided) internet,” different from Springboro’s plans to lease or sell conduit and/or fiber to private companies.

Construction is expected to be completed by late September 2021.

Staff Writers Jeremy Kelly and Ed Richter contributed to this report.

Contact Eileen McClory at 937-694-2016 or