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Opponents fear proposed municipal broadband ban would create state-sanctioned ISP monopoly

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Posted at 6:30 PM, Jun 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-16 09:44:26-04

FAIRLAWN, Ohio — A last minute and widely-panned amendment that was snuck into the Ohio Senate's budget proposal without public discussion threatens to pull the plug on nearly three dozen municipal broadband services across the state and prevent other cities from starting their own. Opponents said the controversial budget amendment would effectively allow massive internet service providers like Spectrum and AT&T to have state-sanctioned monopolies.

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.

"Part of what we were trying to do is increase that competition. We were trying to bring something better here," said Ernie Staten, the public service director for the city of Fairlawn. "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."

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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. Upload speeds on fiber lines are also demonstrably faster.

Staten 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, Staten said. 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.

"[The residents] were not getting the service that they wanted honestly. The second reason is they weren't getting the customer service they [wanted]," Staten said. "92% [of residents] said, 'Yes, we want Fairlawn to look at [starting a municipal broadband service]. We were able to pull it off in 2017 and haven't looked back since."

The amendment included in the Ohio Senate's proposed budget would cut the cord on FairlawnGig and more than 30 other municipal broadband services in Ohio. If the amendment were to be approved, municipal broadband services would be prohibited in areas that are served by one of the major ISPs. Complicating matters further, if Elon Musk's satellite internet service, Starlink, is widely adopted, no part of Ohio would be considered as unserved.

According to BroadbandNow, an internet access advocacy organization that monitors major internet service providers, Ohio ranks 24th in broadband access and only 47.7% of the state has access to a wired low-price plan. The average state-wide internet speed in Ohio is 87.4 megabits per second, the organization said.

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The budget amendment was included without public discussion or advanced knowledge.

"It is very concerning because now we'll back into the monopolies that we had before," said Gregg Zolton, the chief information officer for Crystal Clinic, an orthopedic surgical hospital with several locations around Northeast Ohio. "With the internet speeds that I want, it is going to be more pricey. For me to be able to turn on and troubleshoot, it is going to be a lot more difficult."

Zolton praised FairlawnGig for its speed, reliability and customer service. Crystal Clinic has become one of the municipal internet service's largest customers because FairlawnGig also offers the company with multiple levels of redundancy -- an essential feature for a functioning hospital.

"Fairlawn gives us the repetition of multiple connections where if something would happen down the street, I have up the street that can take care of us," Zolton said. "It's really great that we have this service and now it's getting mature enough to the point where we're actually taking more advantage of the offerings. To have that disappear, it would make it very difficult for us in the future."

Staten said a groundswell of opposition is now vocalizing the collective disgust around the budget amendment. The Medina County Council and Summit County Council both unanimously approved resolutions condemning the budget amendment. The amendment has also been derided by some republicans, which label it as a government overreach and anti-free market.

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Staten said the city will defend its broadband service to the end -- even if it requires litigation.

"Our intent is that under home rule we should be allowed to to give the service that our residents want, whatever that service is. Right now we're talking about broadband but it could be any service that's out there. We believe we have the right to give that service," Staten said. "Whatever rules they'd like to see us follow is what we have to follow here -- not the State of Ohio telling us how to spend our money or what services that we're supposed to get."