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General Assembly looks to 'bridge the digital divide'

By Steven Collins, The Circleville Herald

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Washington, April 24, 2018 | comments
A bill has been introduced in the Ohio State Senate that would help bring high-speed internet to rural Ohio.
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CIRCLEVILLE— A bill has been introduced in the Ohio State Senate that would help bring high-speed internet to rural Ohio.

House Bill 378 would create a broadband development grant program to encourage the Department of Transportation to work with telecommunications providers to lay fiber optic cables.

Gary Scherer (R-Circleville) is a co-sponsor of the bill and called it important for Ohio’s rural communities.

“Folks in the big cities have no idea about the lack of broadband internet access in small towns and in rural areas throughout the rest of Ohio,” Scherer said. “The program is meant to help companies justify the investment to serve rural Ohio. The grant program would be 50-50. It’s the right thing to do.”

Scherer said taxpayers approved the program on two separate occasions for just this purpose, in order to incentivize technology improvements throughout Ohio.

“Broadband access has become as necessary to our lives as is electricity, and we just don’t have that access to a large part of our population,” Scherer said.

Ryan Scribner, economic development director at Pickaway Progress Partnership (P3), Pickaway County’s economic development agency, said having access to better Internet infrastructure is important for Ohio and Pickaway County.

Scribner said about 10 years ago, the county went through Connect Ohio to partner with Intelliwave Broadband from Athens.

“We helped them capture a couple million dollars for them to build out a nearly countywide broadband network, which provided higher speed Internet access that was available throughout the county,” he said. “Before we had these huge voids and area where there was no broadband option.”

Scribner said as things evolve, the county needs another upgrade and they’ve come back to the table.

“We’re having a similar discussion again and we’re tracking things that are happening at the state level, that if there’s an opportunity to rally the local stakeholders again and partner again to take advantage of another round of funding, we’re going to do that and move the needle a little bit more,” he said. “Broadband availability is an important thing for a community that wants and needs to grow. It’s as important a piece of infrastructure as any today.”

The bill previously passed the House earlier this month with 85 “Yes” votes and 11 “No” votes. Both local representatives Ron Hood (R-Ashville) and Scherer voted in favor of the bill.

According to a press release from the Ohio House, the program would invest $100 million over the next two years through bond proceeds from Ohio’s Third Frontier program.

Under the bill, private businesses, political subdivisions, nonprofit entities and cooperatives may apply for a grant through the Ohio Development Services Agency (DSA) and include information detailing the project.

After evaluating the applications, the DSA director would award grants based on certain criteria to qualified applicants in geographically dispersed regions of the state. Grant amounts cannot exceed 50 percent of the project’s total cost, or $5 million, whichever amount is less.

United States Congressman Steve Stivers (R-15) called broadband internet a necessity for Ohio’s residents.

“From my many meetings with constituents in rural communities, it is clear that broadband is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity,” he said. “In fact, studies have shown that the lack of connectivity can have an effect on education, poverty, infant mortality, and even cancer incidence. I applaud the Ohio General Assembly for taking action on this issue, and it is my hope that by working together at the local, state, and federal level, we can bridge the digital divide.”

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