After coming close to imposing a near-total ban on municipal broadband networks, Ohio’s Republican-controlled legislature has reportedly dropped the proposed law in final negotiations over the state budget.
The final budget agreement “axed a proposal to limit local governments from offering broadband services,” The Columbus Dispatch wrote. With a June 30 deadline looming, Ohio’s House and Senate approved the budget and sent it to Gov. Mike DeWine for final approval on Monday night, the Dispatch wrote.
As we wrote earlier this month, the Ohio Senate approved a version of the budget containing an amendment that would have forced existing municipal broadband services to shut down and prevented the formation of new public networks. The proposed law was reportedly “inserted without prior public discussion,” and no state senator publicly sponsored the amendment. It was approved in a party-line vote as Democrats opposed the restrictions in municipal broadband.
The House version did not contain the amendment, and it was dropped during negotiations between the House and Senate.
“Real grassroots movement”
Lawmakers apparently relented to public pressure from supporters of municipal broadband and cities and towns that operate the networks. People and businesses from Fairlawn, where the city-run FairlawnGig network offers fiber Internet, played a significant role in the protests. FairlawnGig itself asked users to put pressure on lawmakers, and the subscribers did so in great numbers.
“We had a real grassroots movement here in Fairlawn. We are thrilled our residents, subscribers, and businesses came together and helped us defeat this amendment,” Fairlawn Service Director Ernie Staten said yesterday, according to an article by the Community Networks team at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR). “We appreciate that the State of Ohio recognizes that municipal broadband has a place in this state and we hope to continue this great endeavor.”
Fairlawn subscribers sent more than 700 emails telling lawmakers, “Don’t take this (municipal broadband) away!” Staten said.
The proposed law would have let cities and towns provide broadband service only to unserved areas and used a definition of “unserved” that would reportedly have made over 98 percent of the state ineligible for municipal broadband. The proposed law defined “unserved areas” as those without access to service with download speeds of at least 10Mbps and upload speeds of at least 1Mbps, which isn’t even half as fast as the 25Mbps/3Mbps broadband threshold the Federal Communications Commission adopted over six years ago.
Cities build networks when private ISPs don’t bother
Staten also pointed out that “municipalities only enter the broadband space when forced to by the inaction of the private sector,” according to the Akron Beacon Journal.
There are about 30 public broadband providers in Ohio. Besides Fairlawn, examples of local governments running broadband networks include Hudson, Medina County, and Wadsworth. “We’re thrilled that communities like Fairlawn and Hudson can keep serving their communities,” Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro said after learning that the budget amendment was dropped, according to the Akron Beacon Journal.
Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley previously said the city would sue the state if it restricted municipal broadband.
Until a few months ago, 19 US states had laws restricting municipal broadband, passed for the benefit of private Internet providers that don’t want to face competition from public networks. Washington state lawmakers have since killed their anti-municipal broadband law, and Arkansas ended many of its restrictions on municipal broadband as well.
Public networks may be ineligible for new funding
Though it isn’t banning public networks, at least for now, Ohio’s legislature is apparently not letting municipal networks apply for a new round of funding.
“While Staten celebrated the removal of the budget amendment, he called the victory ‘bittersweet,’ as municipalities and electric cooperatives in the state do not have access to the proposed $250 million broadband expansion grant program that will be established when, and if, Gov. Dewine signs the budget into law,” the ILSR wrote.
The outcome of that isn’t certain yet. “We have been asking for a small definition change to add municipalities and electric coops, but unless they changed the language, I believe the House version stands,” Staten told the ILSR. But the biggest news is the legislature dropping the plan that would have forced networks to shut down. “Being able to continue [providing service] is much more important,” Staten said.