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It’s vital we make broadband access for all a priority

Broadband connectivity is just as critical to our livelihoods and our economy these days as the infrastructure that brings other utilities into our homes and businesses. Let’s face it: It’s virtually impossible to conduct business or educate our youth without fast internet access and Wi-Fi service.

And the need doesn’t stop there. Health care access and counseling now often are being done via the internet. Seemingly overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic has ramped up further accessibility needs for everyone. These days, local government meetings and our children’s classes are being conducted via Zoom. And let’s not forget social and entertainment activities, shopping or just basic information access often requires broadband internet.

We are pleased, therefore, to read that local school districts have been awarded more than $2 million in grants to help make connecting possible for all students. The Ohio Department of Education announced this month that Mahoning Valley school districts received $2,725,908 in Broadband Ohio Connectivity grant awards from CARES Act funds. Statewide, $50 million was distributed to Ohio schools for the purpose of improving internet connectivity.

Dozens of schools and school districts in Trumbull and Mahoning counties that applied have received tens of thousands of dollars each for use, in part, to ensure that students are connected to their teachers online, whether they are attending classes in their regular school buildings, are attending classes in buildings only a few days per week or are fully online.

Now it is up to these schools to ensure the funds are spent properly and that it is benefiting the students who need it most in order to complete assignments, appropriately research online sources and easily access their teachers.

But let’s be clear. These funds should be considered only a start to the looming problem of a lack of high-speed internet access that exists in many rural parts of our county.

Some districts, like Youngstown City Schools, are using the funds to hard-wire internet kits through Spectrum for many of its students. For others who cannot access Spectrum due to location or other reasons, hotspots are being used.

Hotspots provide quick access, but really this is just a temporary way to fix a problem that is so much bigger. Hotspots are not always the answer — particularly in rural areas where cellular service is spotty.

Sadly, even in the year 2020, many, many residents and even businesses in our local communities have no access to high-speed internet — not because they can’t afford it or don’t want it, but because it simply is not available to them. Statewide, more than 1 million Ohioans have no connectivity.

An Ohio House bill sponsored by a local legislator is taking aim at the problem, hoping to provide funding that could help.

Ohio House Bill 13, known as the Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion bill, sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Michael J. O’Brien of Warren, would help move Ohio forward in this regard. The bill passed the House this summer and now is in committee in the Ohio Senate, and O’Brien said the bill already has support of Gov. Mike DeWine. If it passes as is, it would establish a $20 million fund per year to provide internet service to areas of the state with limited or no broadband access. It would create an Ohio Broadband Extension Authority board to determine which projects would be funded annually.

The bill is a step forward on this very important issue that needs a focused plan. We encourage bipartisan support of HB 13 in the Senate. Certainly, in this 21st century, a choice to live or set up business away from the hubbub of the city should not mean your online access to the rest of the world is eliminated.

Indeed, access to information and educational tools via broadband should be available to all. Life today depends on it.

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