The Ohio House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill last week that could grant $20 million for expanding broadband access across Ohio.

If passed, the bill would create the Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion Grant Program to award grants to broadband providers that will fund the construction of new projects in unserved areas in the state, according to a nonpartisan analysis of the legislation from the Ohio Legislative Service Commission.

Eligibility for grants is determined based on the level of broadband connection in a municipality or township. Areas that are most eligible are designated in the legislation as unserved, or locations without access to “tier one or tier two” broadband services, according to the analysis.

The bill was co-sponsored by House Majority Whip Rep. Jay Edwards (R-Athens), who has long advocated for broadband expansion in southeast Ohio. He and Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted announced in February at the Ohio University Inn that Spectrum had build 20 miles of fiber to extend high-speed internet to more than 2,000 homes and businesses in Athens County.

“Across Ohio, nearly one million Ohioans lack reliable internet connection, and 300,000 households do not have any internet options. This is an issue in southeast Ohio, where topography and low population density have been impediments to expansion. I am proud to support House Bill 13 and am hopeful the Senate will take action on the measure so we can get this bill signed into law later this year,” Edwards said in a statement.

Larry Kidd, the CEO of the Jackson-based company “:hire,” testified before the Ohio House Finance Committee last week in support of the bill. Kidd said in his testimony that he lives six miles from downtown Jackson and struggles to perform basic functions online, such as downloading image. He and his family use an AT&T hotspot that’s expensive and unreliable, he said.

“It’s unfair for those living in a rural community to be plagued by unreliable or nonexistent Internet. Access to information is vial as we have recently seen during the pandemic, economic downturn, public demonstrations and riots,” Kidd said. “Please level the playing field so the rural dwellers can enjoy the same access to the basic life utilities such as quality and reliable internet.”

The bill has yet to be introduced in the Ohio Senate, but it would need to pass in that chamber and be approved by Gov. Mike DeWine to become law.

A study conducted by the Buckeye Hills Regional Council — which was funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission in coordination with OU and the Athens County Economic Development Council — found that 80 to 90 percent of households in the “rural expanse” of southeast Ohio have no broadband access. The study defines the “rural expanse” as areas with 20 or fewer households per square mile.

A large potion of Athens County, and the surrounding counties, lack broadband availability at the Federal Communications Commission minimum standard, according to the study.

sdawes@vintoncourier.com; @sydneydawes_95

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