Final Ohio budget bill drops attack on community networks, restores rural broadband $$, but still ignores state’s real digital divide

First the good news: The final version of House Bill 110, the 2022-23 state appropriations bill, was sent to the Governor for signing yesterday without the Senate’s “Government-owned broadband networks” language.  Angry pushback against this last-minute, covert attempt to ban local public network initiatives — from local public officials, media,  community planning and development organizations, digital inclusion advocates, public broadband systems, and the DeWine Administration among others — apparent caught its unnamed sponsors by surprise. It was quietly dropped by the House-Senate Conference Committee.

The Conference Committee also restored 2022-23 funding for BroadbandOhio’s Residential Broadband Expansion Grants Program, which had been zeroed out by the Senate. In fact, the final version of the bill increases the program’s total funding to $250 million.

But here’s the bad news: Every cent of that quarter-billion dollars must be used to subsidize  broadband infrastructure owned by private Internet service providers (no “government-owned networks” or community partnerships), in “unserved areas” where Internet speeds of 25 Mbps up and 3 Mbps down are unavailable at any price.

It’s more money.  But it’s still only allowed to fund ISP-owned rural broadband projects.

The increased funding for BroadbandOhio’s rural grants may well do a lot to expand the availability of expensive commercial broadband service in areas of rural Ohio that don’t have it. But it will do nothing at all for the majority of Ohio households without broadband connections… households in big cities as well as smaller urban communities who can’t afford those ISPs’ $60-$75 monthly bills, or who’ve never had the opportunity to learn to use the technology, or both.

Our article about the version of House Bill 110 originally passed by the House, back in April, was entitled “Ohio House budget has $190 million for rural ISP subsidies, but $0 to help fix cities’ broadband gaps”.  All of the issues it described with that version of the budget bill are still present in the bill the Governor received from the General Assembly yesterday. We won’t repeat it all here.  The price tag is bigger, but the General Assembly’s final vision of digital equity is just as limited.

There’s still a possibility that the news could get better. The Governor has the opportunity to commit some of the state’s American Rescue Plan Act funding to a broader vision that includes broadband affordability, digital literacy, and urban as well as rural Ohio.  He and Lieutenant Governor Husted have said in the past that this is where they want BroadbandOhio to go. Let’s hope they meant it.