COLUMBUS — An Ohio House bill to incentivize broadband internet development in the state has seen strong Ashtabula County support.

Ohio House Bill 378 would establish the Ohio Broadband Development Grant Program, which would award up to $49 million over the next two fiscal years to municipalities, businesses, nonprofits and other entities for broadband connectivity research, testing and planning in underserved areas of the state, paying up to $5 million per project, or half the total cost. The grant program would be administered through the Ohio Development Services Agency.

The bill, introduced in October by state Reps. Ryan Smith, R-Bidwell, and Jack Cera, D-Bellaire, was passed last week out of the House Finance Committee. 

“I am a vociferous proponent of HB 378,” bill cosponsor State Rep. John Patterson, D-Jefferson, said in a release. “This is a victory for rural development; from the growth of agricultural businesses to the use (of) telemedicine, we will increase the opportunity for innovation in areas of our state that have been vastly underserved.”

Dwight Bowden, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Regional Airport — which has partnered with Kent State University for an Appalachia Regional Commission grant to develop broadband in the area — said the airport is looking to establish an airframe maintenance program.

“This project will not be possible without a high speed broadband connection,” Bowden said during testimony to the House Finance Committee in early February.

“In fact, just to conduct routine airport business is currently difficult with the existing ‘best effort’ DSL connection,” he continued. “With regards to airport safety, the NEORA participates in the FAA (aircraft notification system). This system allows the airport to electronically post notifications to the FAA, which are in turn broadcasted to aircraft in the air within seconds.

“With our current connection, posting of (notifications) can be difficult.”

Ashtabula County President Commissioner Kathryn Whittington, who testified in favor of the bill before the House Finance Committee in early February, described “a void” in broadband connectivity across the county — one that “hinders economic growth.”

“We still have large tracts of our county that cannot access the internet or if they can, the service is painfully slow or unreliable at best,” she said. “In fact, I personally do not have access to the internet from home.

“I must travel to our local library to access the internet to complete the administration and bookkeeping of our small business and my son, who is a sophomore at Pymatuning Valley High School, either stays after school or walks to the library in order to complete his school assignments.”

Hospitals could make more use of “telehealth” and doctor visits conducted through video conferencing, if more patients had reliable internet access, said Jason Glowczewski, COO of University Hospitals’ Conneaut and Geneva medical centers.

He said widespread broadband access could “revolutionize” preventative in-home care and monitoring as well as reduce ER visits, making overall health care cheaper as a result.

“The UH Home Care team could use tele-monitoring equipment in the patient’s home to measure vital signs like blood pressure, oxygen levels, blood glucose levels and weight. That information would then be transmitted to the health care provider,” he said during his late February testimony before the committee.

“The goal is earlier detection and intervention for chronic diseases that are costly to treat, such as congestive heart failure, high blood pressure and diabetes.”

Donald Chaplin, president of Grand River Rubber and Plastics in Ashtabula — which employs more than 200 people, many of whom are county residents — testified to the bill’s potential to boost the county’s residential tax base.

“Access to broadband high speed internet will further allow our local-based businesses to expand their reach across the state of Ohio, the nation and, yes, even the world,” he said. “We will further be able to encourage citizens of other communities (particularly nearby larger cities) to put down roots in Ashtabula County, knowing they will have the same access to broadband that the ‘big city’ offered them.”

However, the Ohio Cable Telecommunications Association — which presented the bill’s only opposing testimony last week — said it was unable to endorse the bill as-is. Executive Director Jonathon McGee testified the association would want to see definitions for “unserved areas” and provisions barring electric providers from charging “discriminatory” fees to build the infrastructure along utility poles.

“Further, public entities should not be eligible for this money as history is replete with examples of

failed public broadband projects or

projects that are

unable to exist without other subsidization, which gives such systems and unfair competitive advantage,” he said.

The version leaving the committee did include several amendments — one of which categorizes underserved areas by current broadband speed availability, to prioritize new projects. Another specifies municipalities must contact broadband providers in their area to research their development plans, before applying for OBDG funding.

 

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