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Legislators should restore funds for broadband in state budget

Members of the Ohio House of Representatives and Senate are scrambling this week in a mad-dash sprint to the finish line of an approximate $74 billion state spending plan for fiscal years 2022 and 2023.

Time’s up for fiscal year 2021 at midnight Wednesday, so if legislators are to beat the clock on completing and approving their biennial budget on time, they’ll need to act quickly — and responsibly.

From our vantage point, a priority must be placed on one quick and responsible action sorely needed to guide the state forward: restoration of about $250 million in funding to expand and improve internet access in Ohio in general and to the Mahoning Valley and other areas of Appalachia in particular.

Gov. Mike DeWine, a staunch proponent of broadband expansion, wisely recommended placement of the grants in the new budget to help narrow our state’s gaping digital divide. The state House, however, cut that proposed expenditure to $190 million. The Senate then torpedoed the initiative by erasing its funding completely.

The House action was misguided, the Senate action indefensible.

We join DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted in insisting that the original quarter-billion allocation be restored.

As Husted put it poignantly during his visit to Youngstown last week, “Many people can’t participate in normal modern life without the internet, access to high-speed internet, and I see hundreds of thousands of people in entire communities left out of the modern economy.”

As we pointed out in this space when arguing successfully earlier this year for passage of a $20 million broadband expansion bill sponsored by state Rep. Michael O’Brien, D-Warren, it’s virtually impossible to conduct business or educate our youth without fast internet access and Wi-Fi service. Its vital role in helping many people survive the COVID-19 pandemic relatively unscathed underscores its importance even more.

That’s why the state Senate’s destruction of DeWine’s initiative remains so puzzling. Perhaps some saw passage in May of the $20 million grant program to be sufficient for the state’s needs for the foreseeable future.

To put it bluntly, it is not nearly sufficient.

According to a study by Ohio broadband consultant Tom Reid, ultimately it would require $2.3 billion and 45,000 miles of fiber-optic cables to replace decrepit copper wires and to install reliable broadband access across Appalachia Ohio.

The defunding of the broadband initiative likely would hit close to home as well. Sometimes our residents forget they are part of the Appalachian region serviced by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). This includes all of Columbiana, Mahoning and Hancock counties in our three Columbiana County-based newspapers coverage area. In all the ARC is comprised of 13 states covering 420 counties.

Loss of the $250 million in state funding, particularly for Appalachian projects, could butcher a plan by the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments to install high-speed fiber lines along the nearly 100 miles of state Route 11 through Trumbull, Mahoning, Ashtabula and Columbiana counties. That project would serve 620,000 people along its path and, more importantly, provide reliable service at long last to many who lack it altogether.

After all, sizable sections of the four counties have no broadband coverage whatsoever, according to Jim Kinnick, ERCOG executive director.

And it’s not only rural areas in dire need of internet tuneups; many urban areas remain underserved as well. Kinnick points to a feasibility study that shows Youngstown ranks second-worst in broadband accessibility among communities of 5,000 or more in the state, and Warren ranks an almost equally embarrassing fifth-worst in Ohio.

In addition, ignoring the need to upgrade broadband accessibility also ignores the growing power of the internet as an economic engine for the state. Not only has the capabilities of online meetings, like Zoom, helped companies trim expenses, the consumer purchasing power of the web is increasing exponentially. A study earlier this year by The Ohio State University’s Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics concluded that more than 1 million Ohioans still do not have adequate internet access, and, if they did, it would wield $2 billion in additional economic impact for Ohio.

Clearly, the state can no longer ignore the basic necessity and competitive edge that robust and dependable internet service can deliver. Failing to act, in Husted’s words, would make Ohio “a backward state.”

No one wants that. State lawmakers must realize that failing to restore full funding to broadband expansion in the new two-year budget is not an option if they are the least bit serious about strengthening Ohio’s image and its economy.

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