OHIO — With a 91-5 vote, the Ohio House passed legislation Friday that aims to expand high-speed internet to underserved and rural areas.
House Bill 2 would provide up to $210 million in grants to the first-ever Residential Broadband Expansion Program, which will be rewarded over the next three years to help offset construction costs associated with expanding networks.
"Internet is not a luxury in 2021," said Rep. Brian Stewart (R-Ashville), a co-sponsor of the bill. "It's a necessity."
InnovateOhio, an initiative under Gov. Mike DeWine’s administration, started the Broadband Ohio Strategy in December. According to the state, more than one million Ohioans are going without high-speed internet or have a lack of connectivity — an issue that House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes said became even more apparent since the pandemic began.
“The (coronavirus) pandemic has exacerbated existing disparities between those who have reliable internet access and those who do not. This legislation will ensure all Ohioans, no matter where they live, are connected to the resources they need to get ahead,” Sykes said in a statement.
The Senate passed Senate Bill 8, which is similar to House Bill 2. The difference is the amount of money associated with the bill, and the House bill has a clause that would immediately become law after it’s signed by DeWine.
Rep. Brian Stewart, a co-sponsor of the bill, said it’s imperative for Ohioans to receive high-speed internet as more families and children work remotely during the pandemic. “Now more than ever, Ohioans are relying on broadband and internet services in their everyday lives as they work remotely and attend school virtually."
But some people believe it's not enough to solve a bigger problem.
Director Susan Jagers of the Ohio Poverty Law Center warned in her testimony that even if broadband was expanded to hard-to-reach areas, families may still have a problem paying for it.
“The majority of households without access live in cities, suburbs, and small towns where broadband is readily available. For these Ohioans, the main barrier to broadband access is not geography, but cost,” Jagers said. She instead advocated to set aside funds for low-income households to be able to afford internet.
The bill now moves to the Ohio Senate.