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Broadbanned: Opponents believe proposed budget amendment would limit choice, stifle economic growth

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Posted at 6:00 PM, Jun 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-16 18:49:30-04

CLEVELAND — The opposition to a proposed ban on municipal broadband services in Ohio continues to grow as organizations far and wide have labeled the proposal, which was introduced without public discussion, as the wrong idea at the wrong time.

As part of the Ohio Senate’s proposed budget, an amendment was attached without discussion or advanced notice. The amendment would prohibit municipal broadband across the state, preventing cities from establishing their own internet services. More than 30 public broadband providers, including those in Medina and Fairlawn, would effectively be kicked offline.

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice, a municipal broadband advocacy organization that includes Google Fiber, Nokia, Netflix and other major companies, blasted the amendment, saying it will negatively impact local communities, the private sector and the nation’s global competitiveness.

“First of all, it troubles me that we even have to deal with a proposed new barrier at this point in time,” said co-founder Jim Baller. “Like electricity, advanced communications services are platforms, drivers and enablers of just about everything that is important in modern life.”

As the budget amendment is currently written, it would prohibit municipalities from using federal money to accelerate the deployment and adoption of municipal broadband services, especially in unserved or underserved areas. The lack of broadband access rose to the forefront of the national conversation during the COVID-19 pandemic as millions of Americans were suddenly thrust into remote work and school as well as heavy video-conferencing use. One of the most vocal municipalities to come out against the amendment is the city of Fairlawn.

In 2017, the city launched its own internet service, FairlawnGig, which has been lauded for its upload and download speeds while also being less expensive than other internet providers in the area. The one-city ISP required a $10 million initial public investment. As part of the municipal broadband service, the city had 17 miles of fiber optic cable installed throughout the city, which offer internet speeds that are significantly faster than traditional cable internet speeds.

City officials said the genesis of FairlawnGig started in 2013 when city leaders went on an overseas trade mission hoping to eventually lure new businesses to the area. Available internet speeds in the city were a common sticking point for potential investment. City leaders approached representatives of the major ISPs serving Fairlawn and offered to help subsidize the cost of installing fiber optic cable.

The companies declined.

Since the service launched, city officials said it has led to the creation of 700 jobs in the area.

“The government is not here to make a profit. The idea behind it is to give the best service possible. Obviously, at the same time, there is some debt and operation costs that we cover through the service. But we're not here making a killing on it like a private business would,” said Ernie Staten, the public service director for the city of Fairlawn. “Part of what we were trying to do is increase that competition. We were trying to bring something better here. When we launched FairlawnGig, the first thing that happened here was the incumbents immediately raised their speeds and lowered the prices on their packages. It's a win-win.”

A total of 18 states have either imposed severe restrictions on municipal broadband services or banned them outright. However, that number has been in decline. Arkansas’s legislature, which, like Ohio, leans heavily Republican, recently struck down its municipal broadband restrictions.

“It seems that the Ohio legislation is 180 degrees in the wrong direction. What we need to do is encourage broadband deployment,” Baller said. “Frankly, what I think is that what we need is the public sector and the private sector aligned and looking in the same direction. Local governments are as representative of their communities and they’re in the best position to make things work.”

Those that support restrictions or bans on municipal broadband service often raise the issue of the role of government in the telecommunications industry, and because starting a broadband service requires significant public investment and regular operating costs.

However, Baller said the root of the debate is choice. If a municipality and its residents want to make the investment, they should have every right too, Baller said.

“They are the ones that know the community. They’re the ones who have the most at stake. They should have a respected role in this process,” Baller said. “They should not be shut out of the process.”