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Ohio looks to pump $50M into expanding internet access to rural areas

Nearly a third of Ohioans in rural counties lack access to broadband internet, compared to just 2 percent of urban residents, something legislators want to remedy with a proposed $50 million grant program.

Proponents of the bipartisan House Bill 378 said this digital gap has a negative affect on everything from health care to education to employment in rural communities, and closing it would level the economic playing field.

The bill, sponsored by Reps. Ryan Smith, R-Bidwell, and Jack Cera, D-Bellaire, would provide $50 million each year in grants to private businesses, political subdivisions, nonprofits and phone and internet cooperatives to expand broadband coverage to about 14,000 Ohio households annually.

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The money would come from existing funding from Ohio Third Frontier bond revenue, an economic-development initiative administered by the state, so it wouldn’t raise taxes or affect the General Revenue Fund.

The Ohio House approved the bill by 79-11 and proponents hope the Senate will do the same before it adjourns for the summer.

“The burden of delivering internet service in America is vastly placed on private industry,” said Stu Johnson, executive director of Connect Ohio, a nonprofit that promotes broadband access for every Ohioan.

The large providers like Spectrum and AT&T have laid much of the infrastructure that allows homes to get high-speed internet access, he said, unlike other utilities like water where public entities control it.

“We can’t ask (private companies) to invest in an area that would be less beneficial to their shareholders than someplace else,” Johnson said.

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The grants would provide the necessary incentive for a company to expand into a rural area where it otherwise wouldn’t be prudent to invest.

Connect Ohio has mapped the state’s home internet access and found that in Darke, Champaign, Logan and Shelby counties, more than 10 percent of the population lacks access to internet speeds above 25 megabits per second to download.

That speed is considered the threshold for “high-speed” internet. Anything slower than that and a user would have trouble streaming video or downloading files quickly.

In Clinton County, just 76 percent of households have access to that speed. In some Appalachian counties, it’s fewer than half of all households.

The president of Hocking College in Nelsonville, Betty Young, testified in favor of the bill saying students are left behind when they don’t have access to high-speed internet at home. In Athens County, 36 percent of households lack access to high-speed internet.

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“Hocking College is designing curriculum using free and open-source materials to reduce the cost of textbooks and ultimately the total cost of education,” she said. “Unfortunately, some of our students and our faculty are still living in the dial-up age and this material will simply not run on their equipment.”

In many rural areas, smaller companies have jumped in to fill the gaps but prices tend to be higher for the same speeds as what customers in cities pay.

Affordability is an important piece that will be considered in administering the grants, Johnson said.

“Access that is unaffordable or unreliable is back to no access,” he said.

Applications will also be prioritized if they include a plan to offer digital skills training, he said, because the goal is to get people to adopt the technology once it’s available.

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