By David Koren, executive director of OCTA-Ohio’s Broadband & Cable Association
After months of deliberation, Ohio’s leaders recently wrapped up the budget process, setting state funding and policy priorities for the next two years. Building on the last budget’s quarter-billion-dollar commitment to fund a new Residential Broadband Expansion Grant (RBEG) program to get internet into unserved areas, the new two-year budget invests another $186 million toward broadband access and equity. For those Ohioans who continue to lack quality, reliable internet service in their homes, this is another huge shot in the arm as providers work to get them connected to fast broadband, and as quickly as possible.
Under the DeWine-Husted Administration, and in partnership with legislative leaders, Ohio has developed an impactful broadband policy that is guiding strategic investments to help close the digital divide. Thanks to that thoughtful planning, Ohio will be awarded $793 million from the federal Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program in the coming years. The new budget appropriates $105 million of that BEAD funding to support continued broadband extension efforts across the state.
Since Ohio’s RBEG program was enacted a little more than two years ago, household internet speed demands have continued to increase and the need for reliable service has become more important than ever. Following the federal government’s recent updates to speed standards defining unserved and underserved areas for grant eligibility purposes, important policy updates included in the state budget ensure Ohio is now aligned with federal rules so the dollars received from the federal BEAD program can be used to close the digital divide across the state. Additionally, the budget includes sound policy updates that push broadband providers to deliver the fastest, most reliable broadband service to households in return for the taxpayer dollars awarded to help build that service. In areas where it is determined to be cost prohibitive to construct the most reliable wireline services to unserved and underserved households, other technology solutions will be eligible for grant funding to ensure no Ohioans are left behind.
The budget also recognizes that constructing broadband infrastructure into very rural areas presents complex and costly challenges that can slow, or even completely stall, expansion efforts. Most rural projects require attaching to utility poles to reach customers. On average, broadband providers attach to up to 20 poles per mile. In many cases, build timelines and budgets are impacted by the need to reinforce or completely replace old utility poles that cannot safely handle the weight of the new fiber and equipment needed to deliver reliable internet service. In some cases, as many as 1 in 12 poles may need to be replaced and as much as 25 percent of the total expense of rural broadband buildout comes from utility pole replacements alone. Ohio’s new $50 million Broadband Pole Replacement and Undergrounding Program included in the budget will provide additional resources to help utility companies and broadband providers replace old poles and prevent construction slowdowns.
Delivering quality broadband service to every Ohioan who wants it has been a shared goal of the broadband cable industry and state leaders for many years. With additional funding, updated policies, and new programs now in place, more households and small businesses will soon have access to the fast, reliable internet service they need to thrive in today’s world. There’s no doubt the new state budget will set Ohio on a path toward an even stronger, brighter future.