House Bill 2 passes through Ohio Senate, gives Athenians hope

April 30, 2021

By Jillian Craig, the Athens Post

Athens residents hope for better broadband access after House Bill 2, also known as the Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion grant program, was passed by the Ohio Senate on Wednesday.

The bill, which is on its way to the desk of Gov. Mike DeWine, would increase broadband access for underserved areas of Ohio through a grant program, according to a previous Post report.

“I’ve often heard people now…referring to broadband as the ‘fifth utility,‘“ Chris Knisely, president of Athens City Council, said. “And I believe that’s very much so for the 21st Century, that we need to have access for that for as many of our citizens as possible.”

According to a study of Athens, Hocking, Perry, Noble, Meigs, Morgan, Monroe and Washington counties conducted by Buckeye Hills Regional Council in 2019 in collaboration with Ohio University’s Voinovich School and The Athens County Economic Development Council, 80% to 90% of houses in rural expanse — which is defined as an area with 20 or less houses per square mile — had no access to broadband services.

“It’s pretty incredible, and I think what’s critical for me, looking at it as a citizen of Athens but also as a servant on Athens City Council, is that we need to have that access for our citizens because that’s what helps, I think, determines student success,” Knisely said. “I think it’s also important for our region, for our businesses (and) for their success…for the economic success of our region, you know, to be able to attract businesses. That’s critical, too.”

Nick Tepe, director at Athens County Public Libraries, is happy to see the state’s legislature moving in a direction of increasing broadband access.

“I’m very excited to see the legislature making this a priority,” Tepe said. “It’s something that many of us have been aware of for a very long time, that particularly in rural Ohio there are huge obstacles to broadband access and this is definitely a step in the right direction.”

Tepe gives credit to Rick Carfagna, a republican representative for Ohio’s 68th District and one of the primary sponsors of House Bill 2, for being attentive and aware of the broadband issues in Southeast Ohio. Tepe said he spoke with Carfagna a few years ago about the broadband issues in the area and felt optimistic about the conversation the two had.

“He is a huge proponent of getting the broadband access out into rural areas,” Tepe said. “He really understands the problem very well and that was a really encouraging conversation with him a couple years ago and I’m really glad to see that he was able to pull it through.”

Tepe, however, believes there are other problems along with lack of broadband that will still need to be addressed.

“Even if we can get the last mile broadband in our area, issues of equity of access and affordability will continue to be challenges in our area, and that is something that the library will continue to work towards filling the gap,” Tepe said.

Paul Isherwood, Athens County Broadband Coordinator for Hocking, Athens, Perry Community Action, agrees with Tepe. Isherwood believes there are issues with infrastructure and affordability that also need to be addressed when expanding broadband access.

“The reality is, if we could build the best network, we could connect every house in Athens county to fiber, but if the people who are going to use that connection can’t afford to utilize that connection, it won’t make any difference,” Isherwood said. “So we have to make sure that the solution we come up with doesn’t leave us with network that’s being underused. So, we need to figure out a way to make it an affordable network, and that can come in in terms of subsidizing the infrastructure, but also in terms of subsidizing people’s access.”

Both Isherwood and Tepe are confident in House Bill 2 being passed into law, and Knisely is also hopeful it will be passed. All three stated they had not heard any objection to the bill passing.

“It’s a matter of, you know, equity. Accessibility to the broadband…is an equity issue and needing to provide it to all our citizens,” Knisely said.