Local governments using ARPA funds for publicly owned broadband debated

Jacob Brown, 23, (left) searches for jobs at the Lane Library Hamilton branch Tuesday, April 23, 2013. In 2013, about 72 percent of Ohio residents had high-speed broadband service at home, up 1 percentage point from 2012 and 6 percentage points from 2011, according to a survey of Connect Ohio. NICK DAGGY / STAFF

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Jacob Brown, 23, (left) searches for jobs at the Lane Library Hamilton branch Tuesday, April 23, 2013. In 2013, about 72 percent of Ohio residents had high-speed broadband service at home, up 1 percentage point from 2012 and 6 percentage points from 2011, according to a survey of Connect Ohio. NICK DAGGY / STAFF

The Buckeye Institute issued a report Tuesday cautioning local governments against using millions of dollars available in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to build or expand government-owned broadband networks.

The conservative think tank argues that government-owned networks create unnecessary financial risks for taxpayers.

“Local leaders should pursue strategic grant programs, prudent partnerships with private-sector broadband companies, and direct-to-consumer vouchers in underserved areas to make the internet reliable and affordable across the state,” concludes report author Greg Lawson.

The report singles out Clark County’s plans to us $2.2 million in ARPA funds to connect its buildings via a fiber optic ring. County officials say their plan is to improve connectivity among county facilities, not create a public utility. The county plans to spend another $3 million in partnership with Charter Communications to expand broadband access in the county.

“We haven’t created a government-owned network,” Clark County Commissioner Rick Lohnes. “We’re not doing that.”

Clark County’s project will connect its buildings via the Miami Valley Educational Computer Association, a government-owned network based in Yellow Springs. The network provides internet service to dozens of local school districts and governments, but it doesn’t currently offer services to the public.

Lawson said the Buckeye Institute’s concern is that down the line, governments that build such networks will be tempted to open them to the public and compete with private sector providers.

“Frequently you will find there is a push to expand it,” he said. “That is where we have the bigger concern.”

Broadband expansion was one of the intended uses of ARPA funds in the wake of the COVID pandemic that illustrated how vital internet connectivity is and how many areas remain without it. Many local governments include broadband expansion in their intended ARPA plans, to the tune of millions of dollars locally.

Kent Scarrett, executive director of the Ohio Municipal League, said he doesn’t know how many cities are exploring government-owned networks versus public-private partnerships, but said both should be options for cities based on their needs.

“There are areas of the state where the competition for broadband is not very high, or there isn’t even some major players that would provide the connectivity,” he said.

Scarrett said this means that some areas are exploring treating broadband as a public utility to address this unmet need. He said the pandemic and ways our society adapted to it make it more important than ever for local leaders to help their residents and businesses have access to affordable, reliable, high-speed internet.

“It’s certainly one of the highest priorities of our communities, is ensuring broadband connectivity,” he said.

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