Ohio Senate Republicans have taken an axe to broadband funding
COLUMBUS, Ohio - Funding that would help bridge the digital divide in Ohio is in jeopardy.
House Bill 2, signed into law in May, created the Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion Grant Program with an initial $20 million investment. A co-sponsor, state Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, said the House then approved $190 million for the program in its version of the biennial budget - but the Senate removed it.
"The program exists; the $20 million of funding exists," he said. "But unfortunately, the $190 million - which would really allow this program to take off - that continues to be a bit of a political football."
Stewart noted that one in four rural Ohioans lacks access to high-speed internet. House Bill 2 passed with bipartisan support. Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, expressed concern about increasing spending to expand broadband, noting that having access doesn't ensure that people have the capability to use it.
Stewart said the past year has shown how much more difficult it is to stay connected to friends, family and community services without internet access - connections that all have been shown to improve the adverse effects of social isolation.
"We've got 1 million unconnected Ohioans and the pandemic has really kind of poured gasoline on a situation that was already unacceptable," he said. "And we don't think it's a luxury in the 21st century - it is a necessity."
According to AARP Ohio, telehealth services available through high-speed internet make connecting to specialists and other medical providers easier for people age 50 and older, potentially improving health outcomes. And as many older adults want to remain in their home and community, Stewart said, closing the digital divide is crucial.
"If you live in Franklin County, you have reliable internet and you can get health care through telehealth visits with your doctor, even during a pandemic," he said. "If you live in Morgan County, in my district, you cannot. It's unacceptable."
It's estimated that more than 2,000 Ohioans already have reached out to the Ohio Senate to voice their opinions on the issue.