Members of the Ohio House of Representatives and Senate rush this week in a mad sprint to the finish line of an estimated $ 74 billion state spending plan for fiscal years 2022 and 2023.
Time is up for fiscal 2021 at midnight Wednesday, so if lawmakers are to beat the clock to complete and approve their biennial budget on time, they will need to act quickly – and responsibly.
From our perspective, priority must be given to swift and responsible action that is sorely lacking to guide the state forward: restoring approximately $ 250 million in funding to expand and improve access to Internet in Ohio in general and in the Mahoning Valley and other parts of Appalachia in particular.
Governor Mike DeWine, a strong supporter of broadband expansion, wisely recommended the placement of grants in the new budget to help bridge our state’s yawning digital divide. The State House, however, reduced the proposed spending to $ 190 million. The Senate then torpedoed the initiative by completely wiping out its funding.
The action of the House was misguided, the action of the Senate indefensible.
We join DeWine and Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted in pushing for the original quarter billion allocation to be restored.
As Husted poignantly said during his visit to Youngstown last week, “A lot of people cannot participate in normal modern life without the Internet, without high-speed Internet access, and I see hundreds of thousands of people in entire communities excluded from the modern economy.”
As we pointed out in this space when we successfully advocated earlier this year for the passage of a $ 20 million broadband extension bill sponsored by State Representative Michael O ‘Brien, D-Warren, it is virtually impossible to do business or educate our young people without fast internet access. and Wi-Fi service. Its vital role in helping many people survive the COVID-19 pandemic relatively unscathed underlines its importance even further.
This is why the State Senate’s destruction of DeWine’s initiative remains so puzzling. Some may have seen the passage in May of the $ 20 million grant program sufficient to meet state needs for the foreseeable future.
To put it bluntly, this is not enough.
According to a study by Ohio broadband consultant Tom Reid, it would ultimately take $ 2.3 billion and 45,000 miles of fiber optic cables to replace decrepit copper wires and install reliable broadband access in the Ohio Appalachians.
Funding for the broadband initiative would likely hit close to home as well. Sometimes our residents forget that they are part of the Appalachian region served by the Commission rÃ©gionale des Appalaches (ARC). This includes all of Columbiana, Mahoning, and Hancock counties in our Columbiana County Three Newspaper coverage area. In total, the ARC is made up of 13 states covering 420 counties.
The loss of $ 250 million in state funding, especially for Appalachian projects, could ruin a plan by the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments to install high-speed fiber lines along the nearly 160 km from National Highway 11 through Trumbull, Mahoning, Ashtabula and Columbiana counties. . This project would serve 620,000 people throughout its journey and, more importantly, would finally provide reliable service to many people who are totally lacking it.
After all, significant sections of the four counties have no broadband coverage, according to Jim Kinnick, executive director of ERCOG.
And it’s not just rural areas that are in dire need of Internet tuning; many urban areas also remain underserved. Kinnick points to feasibility study that shows Youngstown ranks second in broadband accessibility among communities of 5,000 or more in the state, and Warren ranks fifth almost as embarrassingly in Ohio .
Furthermore, ignoring the need to improve broadband accessibility also ignores the growing power of the Internet as an economic engine for the state. Not only have the capabilities of online meetings, like Zoom, helped businesses cut spending, but the purchasing power of consumers on the web is growing exponentially. A study conducted earlier this year by the Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics at Ohio State University concluded that more than one million Ohioans still lack adequate internet access and, if they did so, it would have an additional economic impact of $ 2 billion for Ohio. .
Clearly, the state can no longer ignore the basic necessity and competitive advantage that a robust and reliable Internet service can provide. Failure to act, in Husted’s words, would make Ohio “A backward state”.
Nobody wants that. State legislators should realize that not restoring full funding for broadband expansion in the new biennial budget is not an option if they are in the least serious about strengthening the network. image of Ohio and its economy.