OH Senate: No rural broadband $$, no digital inclusion $$, and let’s kill those community networks

Yesterday the Ohio Senate passed its version of the state’s big two-year budget bill, House Bill 110 — all 3,307 pages. Twenty-five Republican Senators voted yes, eight Democrats voted no. The bill, which has many significant differences with the House version passed in April, will now go to a conference committee where representatives of the two chambers will try to reconcile those differences.

One big difference is the appropriation for the Department of Development’s BroadbandOhio office to use for rural broadband infrastructure subsidies, otherwise known as “Residential Broadband Expansion Grants”.  The General Assembly passed House Bill 2 in May, creating the RBEG program with $20 million in startup funding.  The House version of the budget bill included another $190 million for RBEG to spend in 2022-23… close to the amount the DeWine Administration had proposed.

In a sharp slap in the faces to the Governor, Lieutenant Governor Husted (who is BroadbandOhio’s main champion), HB 2’s sponsors and supporters in the House, and many thousands of rural broadband advocates across Ohio, the Senate version reduces this amount to zero.

A second big difference with the House version is an amendment, mysteriously added to the final package by the Senate Finance Committee with absolutely no public discussion just before the Committee’s final vote,  that would ban any local government ownership of, or partnership in, a broadband network that provides retail or wholesale access to any area that already has wired or wireless Internet service at speeds of 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up.  This apparently applies to all local “subdivisions” of the state including cities, counties, townships, school districts, port authorities, etc.

The “government network amendment” is obviously intended to put Ohio’s handful of municipal broadband providers (like FairlawnGig and Bryan Municipal Utilities Internet service) out of business, and prevent any new ones from emerging as a result of Federal infrastructure money pushed by the Biden Administration, which wants to prioritize community providers. But it could disrupt communities’ ability to promote Internet access, adoption and equity at many other levels — from dark fiber and middle-mile partnerships to promote business growth, to school district and library network initiatives to provide affordable access for low income residents, to public Wi-Fi services.  (See this briefing paper from Columbus law firm Ice Miller LLP for more horrible details.)

Sadly, one area where the House and Senate versions of HB 110 don’t differ at all is funding for digital inclusion initiatives — affordability, digital literacy training, programs that actually help unconnected households get connected.  There isn’t any.

Despite an early proposal by the DeWine Administration for urban and rural network funding to promote affordability, and months of assurances by BroadbandOhio leaders that broadband adoption and digital literacy were on the table with legislators, neither the House nor the Senate ever showed any interest.  If BroadbandOhio has any resources for urban or rural digital inclusion programs in the next two years, those resources will come from Washington, not the State House.

Ohio’s 2022-23 budget process isn’t over, so stay tuned. Anything can happen in a General Assembly conference committee, and the Governor has a line-item veto.  It seems pretty unlikely that the House will roll over and agree to little or no rural broadband funding. And that veto could matter a lot if the Senate’s shady “government network amendment” makes it through the conference process and reaches the Governor’s desk.