Dems: What about Ohio cities’ broadband gap?

(This post was updated on March 28 to reflect the approval of Substitute House Bill 378 by the Ohio House Finance Committee on March 21.)

A year after CYC and NDIA first documented the extent of AT&T’s digital redlining of Cleveland neighborhoods, big-city Democrats in the Ohio General Assembly are lining up to support a proposed state grant program for community-driven high-speed broadband investments to fill access gaps left by private providers.

But their own cities and neighborhoods need not apply.

The new program, created by House Bill 378 — approved last week by the House Finance Committee, and now awaiting a vote of the full House — would appropriate $100 million in Third Frontier funds to subsidize local broadband infrastructure projects that would provide fast Internet service to “unserved areas”. “Broadband” is defined using the FCC’s standard — currently 25 mbps down and 3 mbps up. “Unserved” means that an area has no providers offering residential Internet access at those speeds, at any price, “according to the latest state broadband map.”.

In practice, that means the proposed grant program is meant only for areas that aren’t served either by digital cable providers or by advanced telco services like AT&T’s fiber-to-the-node.

Supporters like to say any community — urban, suburban or rural — could be eligible to compete for a grant if they’re in that situation. But looking at the current Ohio map maintained for the state by Connect Ohio, it’s apparent that no significant residential area in any of the state’s major cities would qualify.

That’s because virtually all residents of Ohio’s major cities — including those worst-affected by AT&T’s digital redlining — have nominal access to cable Internet service at “maximum advertised speeds” faster than 25/3, as reported to the FCC by major providers like Charter or Buckeye. *

Does that mean broadband access is no longer a problem for residents of Ohio’s central cities? Hardly. The chart to the right (click to enlarge) shows the percentages of households in Ohio’s seven metropolitan central cities that lacked fixed broadband Internet accounts in 2016, according to the U.S. Census.

Thanks to AT&T’s failure to upgrade its service in high-poverty neighborhoods — now documented not just for Cleveland, but for Dayton and Toledo as well — cable is too often the only fast home broadband option for inner city Ohio neighborhoods. The fact that it’s an unaffordable option for many residents of those neighborhoods doesn’t matter. These neighborhoods and communities are not “unserved areas” as defined by HB 378, so they’ll have no prospect of getting help from the Ohio Broadband Development Grant Program.

Of course the problems faced by rural communities without broadband access are very real, and it’s good that General Assembly is finally getting ready to start investing in a solution. It’s also good that the proposed solution offers some leverage to local governments and nonprofits to drive local solutions — even if most of the grant money will probably end up going to the same providers who’ve created the gaps that need to be filled.

But why do Ohio cities’ Democratic legislators, who are so eager to appropriate state funds to address rural broadband issues, show no concern about the obstacles to affordable Internet access faced by their own constituents?

Nine out of sixteen sponsors and co-sponsors of HB 378 are Democrats. They include big-city Representatives Antonio (Cleveland), Sheehy (Toledo), West (Canton), Miller, Craig and Boggs (all from Columbus),  and Lepore-Hagan (Youngstown).

The Senate version of HB 378 is SB 225 (formerly SB 199). Its main proponent is Senate Minority Leader Joseph Schiavoni, a Democrat who represents Mahoning and Columbiana Counties, including the city of Youngstown, and is running for Governor. Joining him as co-sponsors are the entire Senate Democratic Caucus, including Senators Skindell and Williams of Cleveland, Thomas of Cincinnati, Sykes of Akron, Brown of Toledo, and Tavares of Columbus.

Not one of these legislators has introduced a bill to address AT&T’s digital redlining of neighborhoods in the cities they represent, or called for an investigation of CYC and NDIA’s well-publicized findings, or (to our knowledge) spoken out on the issue in any way.

And none of them has proposed a big state investment, like the $100 million for rural broadband in HB 378 and SB 225, to support affordable high-speed broadband alternatives to the monopoly enjoyed by expensive cable providers in many parts of their own districts.

Why not?  We don’t know.

But with the Ohio primary election coming up in May. now is probably a really good time for interested voters to start asking.
* There’s one important “exception that proves the rule”. Technically, the city of East Cleveland is a Cleveland suburb, not part of the central city; but it’s as urban and low-income as any neighborhood in Cleveland, and it seems to be an “unserved area” within the meaning of HB 378. That’s because East Cleveland’s historic cable franchise was held by a small local company, so Charter doesn’t have a presence. East Cleveland Cable says on its website that it offers Internet “up to 25 Mbps”, but apparently the company hasn’t reported that to the FCC. So according to the maps, most East Cleveland residents have no real broadband option as defined by the FCC.