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Ohio Senate Republicans Move to Bar Municipal Broadband

Ohio Republican lawmakers are trying to strangle municipal broadband programs in Ohio and hold up $190 million in proposed state funding to expand high-speed Internet to underserved areas of the state.

(TNS) — Ohio Republican lawmakers are trying to strangle municipal broadband programs in Ohio and hold up $190 million in proposed state funding to expand high-speed internet to underserved areas of the state, under language slipped into the state budget plan at the last minute.

Under the language, the 30 or so municipal broadband programs in Ohio – including in cities such as Fairlawn, Hudson, Medina, and Wadsworth – would not be allowed to operate so long as there is a private-sector company operating in the area, as there are in most, if not all of the cities. The Senate’s proposal would also bar municipalities from accepting federal money for the purpose of starting a broadband program.

The changes, if passed, would lead to the closure of every municipal broadband program in Ohio and prevent any other municipality from starting one, according to opponents.

“If this amendment is kept in there, you basically have three or four private, monopolistic internet broadband companies that will be dictating the technology future of the state of Ohio,” said Fairlawn Mayor Bill Roth — a Republican, though he runs as a non-partisan candidate.

As the need for high-speed internet access has become increasingly important for nearly all facets of life, broadband providers such as Charter Spectrum and AT&T, two of the largest providers in Ohio, have been slow to upgrade their infrastructure to the highest speeds. In their absence, local governments have looked — and, in some cases, acted — on building their own networks the same as other utilities.

Fairlawn, an Akron suburb of 7,500 people, established its municipal broadband program in 2016 out of concern that slow internet speeds would deter businesses from coming to the city. Roth, Fairlawn’s mayor of 26 years, said all the private-sector broadband companies refused to build a public-private system in his city – and an official from one company (which he declined to name) laughed in his face and said “good luck.”

Today, he said, several businesses have relocated from overseas to Fairlawn, in part because they can get internet speeds of up to 100 gigabits per second. Home values, even pre-coronavirus, rose 7% per year because of the municipal internet system with residential speeds up to 10 gigabits per second for $75 a month, he said.

“When you give (private companies) the chance and they refuse or are unable to do it,” Roth said, “then my question is: is the state of Ohio supposed to remain in the dark ages?”

Other politicians, including in Cleveland, have looked to replicate the Fairlawn model. City Council President Kevin Kelley and nonprofit executive Justin Bibb, who are both running for Cleveland mayor, have proposed creating a municipal broadband program in Cleveland. The city was recently ranked one of the worst-connected cities in the United States, with more than 30% of residents having no access to broadband of any type.

BroadbandNow lists Cleveland’s average internet speed at 45.6 megabits per second, below both Toledo and Dayton at around 70 megabits per second and Columbus and Cincinnati at more than 100 megabits per second.

“If signed into law, this ban on broadband will make closing the digital divide in Cleveland virtually impossible,” Bibb said in a statement. “When a third of our residents are not online, they are held back economically and educationally. Access to high-speed, reliable internet is a must today to complete homework, find employment, access health care, start a business, or just stay informed.”

Kelley, in an interview, said Cleveland would challenge the measures in court if they become law.

“It is just a transparent attack on municipalities and our efforts to extend broadband services for those who need it the most at a time when we need it the most,” Kelley said. “It is absolutely irresponsible legislating. It is done as a favor to the legacy carriers and we’re going to do everything we can to fight it.”

The attack on municipal broadband programs is not unique, Kelley said. According to broadband advocacy group BroadbandNow, municipal broadband programs are restricted in 18 states across the country. Internet providers and telecommunications companies are generally big political donors, with Charter Communications donating more than $800,000 to candidates and political groups in Ohio — both Democrat and Republican — over the past decade.

“This is not uncommon. This is how the legacy providers – Charter Spectrum, AT&T – this is what they do,” Kelley said. “Every time a municipality starts taking serious steps toward providing broadband, they go right to the state legislature and try to come up with these ways to prevent it.”

AT&T “did not propose the amendment or advocate for it,” company spokesman Phil Hayes stated in an email. Charter Spectrum did not respond to a request for comment.

The Senate’s version of the budget would also scrap $190 million that Gov. Mike DeWine sought to expand broadband access infrastructure to areas of the state that don’t yet have it. The Senate’s proposals, which passed by a party-line, 25-8 vote, still have to survive talks between House and Senate budget negotiators, as well as avoid a potential line-item veto from DeWine.

Last month, DeWine signed into law House Bill 2, which provides $20 million in state grants through the end of this month to expand broadband access to parts of the state that don’t have it. It also sets up a framework to provide even more money in the future.

But before HB2 passed, lawmakers amended it to remove $190 million in funding for future years. They instead put the proposed grants in the budget bill, saying – among other reasons – they wanted to see how much Ohio will get in federal broadband grants.

Senate Republicans made the changes in the budget bill for three reasons, said John Fortney, a spokesman for the caucus. One is that lawmakers want to first see how the $20 million is used before appropriating nearly 10 times that amount in additional grants.

“You want to make sure that any type of investment – of that magnitude, especially – does what it’s intended to do,” Fortney said.

Second, Fortney said, municipalities “typically don’t have the bandwidth resource-wise, nor expertise-wise, to be offering that type of service reliably long-term.” When asked how that was the case given that many municipalities are offering such services, Fortney returned to the points about cost and “who’s best-qualified to run this program long-term.”

The third reason is GOP lawmakers are wary of government being involved in the telecommunications market, Fortney said.

“It’s a fundamental discussion about what the role of government should be at the local level,” he said.

When asked why lawmakers should limit local governments if they are filling a need, Fortney said he would “respectfully disagree with that characterization.”

“I mean, look how far we’ve come from 2G up through 4 and now 5G, and having the ability to do so,” Fortney said. “So technology is certainly driving the market and (to) try and get into some of those areas that are geographically challenged, just based on topography. ...I think these are problems that the companies are trying to troubleshoot.”

When asked how the Senate GOP’s changes would expand broadband access – a stated goal of the caucus – Fortney said the question was “counterintuitive” given that the legislature just passed $20 million in broadband grants.

Fortney said he couldn’t say which lawmaker brought the budget amendment, as the process is complex and often involves multiple legislators. Asked whether the proposed changes were brought at the request of private telecommunications companies, Fortney said, “There’s requests that come in from, you know, all different parts of the spectrum.”

Kelley and Roth both thought the proposed changes ran afoul of the Ohio Constitution, which specifically allows municipal utilities.

“I can tell you right off the bat it violates the single-subject rule,” Roth said. “This is a budget bill and they snuck something in that’s unrelated. I don’t know how the state legislature can tell independently elected councils like city councils or county councils how they can spend their money and take away the ability to accept federal money. There’s a lot of overreach in this bill.”

Kent Scarrett of the Ohio Municipal League, an opponent of the Senate GOP’s changes, said he has “very little faith” that the proposals will be removed before the budget is signed into law. A DeWine spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

However, if the broadband proposals do become law, Scarrett predicted that local governments would file a lawsuit against them claiming they violate cities’ home-rule authority.

© 2021 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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