Summit County works to expand broadband after proposed state ban fails

by Laura Bednar

After an effort by the Ohio Senate to ban community broadband, Summit County is trying to expand those services.

Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro is working with the county council to ensure that broadband is made widely available. She has a plan to build a broadband ring around the county that allows communities to connect on their own terms.

“The ring enables each entity to decide where and when they want [service].” she said.

Brian Nelsen, Shapiro’s chief of staff, explained that FairlawnGig, the municipal broadband utility established by the city of Fairlawn, will provide internet connectivity to the ring and maintain the ring for the county.

“The ring will essentially encircle the county running both directions for redundancy, and fiber will be brought from the ring to each city, village and township hall to form a publicly-owned fiber network that connects all 31 communities to each other and to the internet,” said Nelsen.

Each community can then choose to build fiber out into their communities with the ability to supply internet from their town hall.

“This promotes economic diversity in the community,” Nelsen said. This level of broadband attracts businesses and Shapiro said she wants to “ensure we keep communities competitive.”

Paul Schweikert, Sagamore Hills trustee and chair of the Township Association of Summit County, said that Sagamore constituents currently uses either Spectrum or Windstream for their internet provider. “If the county wants to connect us, we are good with that,” Schweikert said.

He said that if the plan were to move forward, Sagamore Hills would not reap any immediate benefits. Schweikert said he thinks the connection build out would start from Akron and spread over a few years’ time.

Nelsen said that providing an opportunity for public and private partnerships will introduce competition and result in better pricing for residents.

The funding for this project would come from the Federal Recovery Act and the county’s local funds, according to Nelsen.

“We are looking at plan initiatives that involve each of the 31 communities,” Nelsen said. The plan is to communicate with these communities in Summit County about their broadband needs in regard to businesses and any other areas they’d like to see expansion occur.

An amendment to the state budget passed by the Ohio Senate would have prohibited government-owned broadband networks from continuing operations except in areas not served by a private broadband service, estimated to be less than 2% of the state.

All nine townships in Summit County supported a resolution of the Township Association of Summit County to oppose the provisions in the amendment. The resolution said the amendment would “effectively prohibit in the state of Ohio the new construction of public-owned broadband networks, and the ongoing provision of broadband services already provided by public-owned networks.”

The resolution noted some of the ways a community benefits from public ownership of a broadband network, including communication between public safety forces, ability to attract and retain business employment opportunities and access to high-quality medical services from anywhere.

Summit County Council also opposed the amendment and after widespread pushback from the public, the amendment was dropped from the state budget before it was sent to Gov. Mike DeWine to be signed into law.

Shapiro said the amendment “put a straitjacket on municipal broadband.” She explained that in today’s world, broadband is as much a foundational need as water and sewer services. The amendment’s requirements for upload and download speed is comparable to dial-up internet, according to Shapiro, which she said puts students at a disadvantage when using devices like Chromebooks for learning.

Said Nelsen, “Technology is only going to become more of a fixture in everyone’s lives.” He said the amendment would have “left Ohio mired in mediocrity for years to come.” ∞