Economic Development

Schiavoni Seeks Third Frontier Funds to Boost Broadband

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Bipartisan legislation being cosponsored by state Sen. Joe Schiavoni would provide $100 million over the next two years to expand broadband access statewide.

The legislation, which Schiavoni is co-sponsoring with state Sen. Cliff Hite, a Republican from Findlay, would create a fund of $50 million per year each for two years from revenue generated by the Third Frontier Program bonds. It would insert language in the bond fund legislation that would allow money to be used to evaluate and expand broadband under research and development projects.

“It’s a simple legislative fix. Now we just have to have action by both the House and the Senate in order to make this happen,” said Schiavoni, D-33 Boardman. He said he has been working on the legislation for more than a year.

A report released last month outlined how lack of broadband access hurts Mahoning County. More than one in three — 37% — of households in Mahoning County lack a fixed broadband connection including 61% of households with children of high school age or younger.

Schiavoni and Hite discussed the legislation during a news conference Wednesday afternoon in Columbus that was live-streamed on the Ohio Channel. Joining them were Pat Kerrigan, executive director of the Oak Hill Collaborative here, and Stu Johnson, executive director of Connect Ohio.

The program, which would be administered by the state Development Services Agency, would award grants of up to $5 million to businesses, non-profit agencies, co-ops or political subdivisions to build broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas. The grants would cover up to half of a project’s cost.

More than 300,000 rural households in Ohio and 8,000 businesses don’t have access to broadband, Schiavoni said. School children, who are increasingly required to complete school assignments online, often lacked home broadband access to do it. “It’s time that we stopped just talking about making this a priority,” he remarked.

Companion legislation is being proposed in the Ohio House of Representatives, and the legislators will seek additional cosponsors next week, Schiavoni said.

The issue of broadband access, Hite said, has been “near and dear to my heart” since he entered the Ohio General Assembly 11½ years ago.

“There are a lot of rural families in my district that do not have broadband and they’re at a disadvantage,” such as when companies list contact information using a website, Hite said. JobsOhio lists employment opportunities, but many jobseekers don’t have access to it unless they go to a public library.

“I don’t know if our legislation is the end-all-be-all perfect remedy, but I guarantee you we’re going to be starting a discussion,” he said.

Pat Kerrigan, executive director of the Oak Hill Collaborative, outlined the impact the lack of broadband access has in an urban setting. The Youngstown neighborhood revitalization organization serves some of the poorest census tracts in the state, if not the entire Midwest, he said.

“This can be such a huge problem with so many parts to it,” Kerrigan said.

Like Hite, Kerrigan cited the increasing reliance on various transactions and functions online, but added in the poor neighborhoods his organization serves, another part of the problem is lack of informed users. “They don’t even know what they don’t know,” he remarked

“If we don’t prepare these people in those areas to meet the challenges of the new world that’s out there, then they’re just going to fall further and further behind, and the social and economic costs to all of us are going to be overwhelming,” he said.

Similar legislation is in place in other states, Johnson said.

Johnson, whose organization is dedicated to expanding broadband access, cited a recent Ohio State University study that estimated connecting all Ohioans would create $2 billion in economic growth. He characterized the figure as conservative, and estimated broadband connectivity statewide would generate $6 billion over the next 15 years, a figure that doesn’t account for the costs of not expanding access.

“What’s the cost of not doing something by potentially leaving these people behind and not able to graduate from high school and get a job?” Kerrigan asked.

“This bill will be a gigantic leap forward in making sure Ohio and all its residents and businesses have the access they need to compete in the global marketplace and prosper in the digital world,” he said.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.