Today the Ohio House passed HB 2, sponsored by Representatives Carfagna (R-Genoa Twp.) and Stewart (R-Ashville). The bill creates the Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion Grant Program, allowing internet service providers to apply for grants that will help fund the infrastructure needed to provide faster internet access to underserved rural Ohio communities. HB 2 was amended to increase funding to $210 million and to add an emergency clause, putting it in effect immediately.
“It may sound hyperbolic, but our lives are dependent on technology,” OFBF Director of State Policy Jenna Reese said while testifying in support of Senate Bill 8, which creates the Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion Grant Program.
The $20 million allocation will build a program to allow for internet service providers to apply for grants that will help fund the infrastructure needed to provide faster internet access to underserved rural communities.
Sen. Rob McColley is the sponsor of the bill in the Senate. House Bill 2 is being fast tracked in the Ohio House by sponsors Rep. Rick Carfagna and Rep. Brian Stewart. The bills are identical. SB 8 passed on Feb. 10. The House version is swiftly being moved through committee hearings.
“These funds were allocated for fiscal year 2020-2021,” Reese said. Similar legislation was not passed in the lame duck session at the end of 2020, and the clock runs out in July to use these funds. Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives has agreed to conditional use of their easements for broadband infrastructure needs.
For years rural broadband has been a priority issue for Ohio Farm Bureau. But, if there ever was a case study that made the issue even more urgent, life with limited internet access during the COVID-19 pandemic has been it.
“Broadband is necessary not just for a more efficient farm, but for improving our rural communities and continuing the farm for years in the future,” Reese said. “Retiring farmers want to leave their legacy and land to the next generation. For many, it can be difficult to attract the next generation to return to the farm and continue on in the family tradition. A quality school system will be a major determining factor for where the family puts down roots. Children in rural areas that do not have access to high-speed internet will face a disadvantage to their contemporaries.”
She also noted the health crisis affecting farmers and others in rural communities, with limited access to health care providers.
“It has been exacerbated by the pandemic,” she said. “As rates of depression and suicide rise among this population, rural communities face a shortage of mental health professionals and closing hospitals. Access to health care is currently limited, but telehealth services could help connect our members quickly with the medical professionals they need. Again, these services are only possible if you have high-speed internet.”
In Gov. Mike DeWine’s proposed 2022-2023 fiscal year state budget, another $290 million is allocated for rural broadband needs.
Photo caption: Stephanie Jolliff is the Ridgemont High School agricultural education teacher and FFA advisor.