The COVID-19 pandemic made clear the importance of accessible and affordable high-speed internet (often called “broadband”) for the health, safety and economic wellbeing of communities. Federal and state initiatives to facilitate broadband access expanded greatly in 2021 and 2022, and with the injection of over $68 billion to fund broadband projects under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, public ownership and operation of broadband projects may be on the horizon. Broadband ownership has been predominately privately owned and operated across the country, but a growing interest in public ownership and operation of broadband projects has emerged over the last decade and accelerated post-pandemic.
While some states have embraced public broadband networks (commonly called “municipal broadband”), other states have had an aversion and perhaps even downright hostility to municipal broadband projects. For instance, Iowa had several municipal broadband networks form since they became legal in 1999, and Tennessee has a strong history of municipal broadband, often run through electrical utilities. However, there are currently 18 states, not including Ohio, that have explicit restrictions on municipal broadband, and another five that have other roadblocks that restrict municipal broadband absent any explicit language. In 2021, the Ohio legislature introduced an amendment into the state budget bill that, if passed, would have nearly banned municipal broadband networks. Although this amendment did not pass, the Ohio legislature excluded municipalities from participating in the Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion program created in 2021. Notably, a few states have shed restrictions on municipal broadband in recent years. Both Washington and Arkansas, removed almost all of their restrictions on municipal broadband in 2021. In addition, the Federal Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program may force Ohio and other states to drop restrictions on municipal broadband participation in broadband grants programs.
As part of receiving Federal BEAD funding, of which Ohio should expect to receive over $900 million, states must allow grants to local governments in addition to cooperatives, nonprofit organizations, public-private partnerships, public or private utilities, public utility districts and private companies. Ohio’s own Residential Broadband Expansion program only had about $250 million in funding. Ohio Senator Portman said he expects Ohio to administer the BEAD program through Broadband Ohio, the agency that handles Ohio’s Residential Broadband Expansion program. However, due to differing requirements for each program, Broadband Ohio will need either to run the programs separately or amend the statutory requirements for Ohio’s Residential Broadband Expansion program.
If this federal money flows through the existing Broadband Ohio program as expected, municipalities should be in line to receive grants to build their own broadband networks through the Broadband Ohio grant process. More details will become available as the program rolls out later in 2022, but it looks like there may be a new dawn for municipal broadband on the horizon.
For additional information on broadband funding in Ohio, please see the attached Guide to Public Funding for Broadband Projects in Ohio.