Language added very quietly to the Ohio Senate’s version of a key budget bill not only targets municipal broadband for extinction, but also seeks to derail growing efforts by the state’s school districts, libraries and other local public bodies to create affordable internet options for their communities.
The so-called “Government-owned broadband network” amendment, widely believed to be the work of lobbyists for Charter Spectrum, comes at the worst possible time for digital inclusion leaders in Columbus, Cleveland and elsewhere in Ohio, who are looking to local governments’ American Rescue Plan allocations, school districts’ new e-Rate funding, and other federal resources as a key source of potential support for community connectivity initiatives.
The amendment was added to House Bill 110, Ohio’s main state appropriations bill for 2022-23, by the Senate’s Finance Committee, as part of an “Omnibus Amendment” that included a large number of budgetary and non-budgetary measures. It was never introduced, debated or even mentioned in a public session of the committee. Nonetheless, it became part of the version of HB 110 that the committee voted last Tuesday to finalize and send to the full Senate, which approved it on Wednesday by a vote of 25 (all Republicans) to 8 (all Democrats). That Senate version has now been referred to a joint House-Senate Conference Committee for negotiations to produce a final, reconciled state budget bill.
The House-Senate Conference Committee is expected to finalize its version of HB 110 as early as this week. The state budget must be sent to the Governor for his signature before June 30.
In brief, the Senate’s “Government owned network” amendment does three things:
1) It forbids any “political subdivision” of the state that has a “government-owned network” to “provide broadband service in any part of the state outside of an unserved area of that political subdivision.”
- Political subdivisions, as defined in Ohio law, include counties, cities, school districts, and a few other local bodies that can participate in the state’s cooperative purchasing system. (Local library systems aren’t specified, but they can ask to be part of the purchasing system, which would get them included in the definition.)
- A government-owned network is defined as “a network owned or controlled by, or operated in partnership with, any political subdivision of the state that is constructed, operated, or used for the provision of broadband service on a wholesale or retail basis”.
- Broadband service is defined as “a retail wireline or wireless broadband service capable of delivering internet access at speeds of at least twenty-five megabits per second downstream and at least three megabits per second upstream.”
- An unserved area is defined as an “area without access to… retail wireline or wireless broadband service… at speeds of at least ten… megabits per second downstream and at least one… megabits per second upstream.”
- So… the amendment prohibits any city, county, school district or library system in Ohio from owning, operating or partnering with a network that provides 25/3 Mbps internet service to users in an area that already has access to 10/1 Mbps service, either wired or wireless.
2) It forbids cities, counties, school districts and other “subdivisions” to “aggregate federal funds received at different times to fund or subsidize the construction, deployment, purchase, lease, or operation of broadband facilities, or the provision of broadband service to subscribers.”
3) It also forbids cities, counties, school districts and other “subdivisions” to “use revenues obtained from, or public monies allocated for, its provision of other residential or business services… to fund or subsidize the construction, deployment, purchase, lease, or operation of broadband facilities or the provision of broadband service to subscribers.”
Community leaders cite threat to affordable access strategies for lower income neighborhoods
Both the Franklin County Digital Equity Coalition and the Greater Cleveland Digital Equity Coalition have sent letters to state legislative leaders signed by dozens of organizations in their respective communities, expressing alarm at this sudden threat to local affordable access strategies., The coalitions’ letters call for the Senate’s “Government owned network” language to be scrapped by the Conference Committee or, failing that, to be vetoed by Governor DeWine.
Aaron Schill of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission says the proposed amendment would seriously damage efforts to reduce digital inequity in Columbus.
The two broadband pilot projects underway in Columbus are prime examples of innovative solutions to address the digital divide that are now threatened by amendment SC4546-1 in the state budget bill. The pilots represent the creative problem-solving that public-private partnerships can offer in bringing affordable high-speed internet to residents who are otherwise unable to afford the market rate broadband service that is available in their neighborhood. Focusing on the South Side and Near East Side neighborhoods in Columbus, the City of Columbus is providing the backbone and middle-mile fiber, while two different private partners (one in each neighborhood) provide the last-mile service directly to households and serve as the internet service provider to the families participating in the program. By leveraging the City’s extensive municipal fiber network, the pilots are able to reduce costs for the private providers, allowing them to offer high-speed internet at rates that are much more affordable for low-income household (likely $15 per month for the duration of the pilots).
Schill points out that passage of the Senate amendment would threaten the very existence of the City of Columbus’ fiber network, on which this effort depends, while also preventing the City from investing American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) or other Federal funds to subsidize neighborhood deployment.
Angela Bennett of DigitalC warns of a similar impact on the organization’s effort to deploy affordable wireless broadband to serve residents of lower income Cleveland neighborhoods:
Specifically, political subdivisions, including school districts and libraries, are prohibited from leveraging this historic opportunity to utilize federal relief funds to expand high speed Internet access for economically disadvantaged communities. As a community-based wireless internet service provider, DigitalC partners with the City of Cleveland, the City of East Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Breakthrough Schools, the Cleveland Public Library and other entities that fall within the definition of “political subdivision” to engage and connect residents to desperately needed broadband access. This Amendment, if passed, would impede DigitalC from collaborating with its school and library partners to access critical funding from the Emergency Connectivity Fund which would provide our families with free internet access for 12 months and a laptop device as well as cover the cost of household installations. Additionally, this Amendment would prohibit the City of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County and the City of East Cleveland from utilizing its American Rescue Plan Act funding to invest in broadband infrastructure to improve the education, economic and health outcomes of their communities.