There’s great news! Three U.S. Senators introduced the BRIDGE Act, which would establish a $40 billion broadband grant program to give schools, libraries, healthcare facilities, and other anchor institutions a gigabit broadband network and digital technologies. Half of the funds must go to institutions in economically distressed rural and urban areas.

But then there’s the bad news. At the same time the federal government is considering a measure to create broadband opportunities for more Americans, the Ohio Legislator, doing the bidding of Charter Spectrum, is trying to nullify all municipal broadband. The change would drastically reduce broadband accessibility in the state by eliminating Internet service providers that are operated under the auspices of a municipal government if there is a private provider available. Consumers will be harmed, and corporations will benefit.

As much as the forces of good take bold steps to reduce the digital divide with the BRIDGE Act, nefarious corporate and legislative leaders in Ohio prepare to burn down the house rather than allow cities, towns, and counties to give voters what they want and need — fast, reliable, affordable broadband. As Ohio legislators prepare to sell out their public, a group of Republican members of Congress have another bill in place to kill municipal broadband nationwide.

BRIDGE Act Fuels Institutions

With this newest effort to infuse funds through the Broadband Reform and Investment to Drive Growth in the Economy (BRIDGE) Act, the stage is set for telehealth hubs to attack the “healthcare gap,” that very real divide between those who have access to affordable, quality healthcare, and those who do not.

Anchor institutions are critical elements of community broadband networks’ design. Partly because anchor tenants can help finance (through fees) a lot of networks’ buildout. But a key reason is that anchor tenants motivate or facilitate network usage and subscriptions.

Telehealth is not the silver bullet for public healthcare, but it can move people from the wrong side of the healthcare gap to better quality healthcare, especially rural residents, inner city low- or no-income residents, older folks, immigrants, the unemployed, and the working poor.

There are 4 million homes without any broadband, and you can’t have telehealth without robust, fast broadband. The BRIDGE Act establishes the Broadband Access Fund, which will turbo charge anchor institutions’ ability to drive residents to telehealth. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is running the fund.

Even the small libraries and institutions are slated to get gigabit broadband speed. The fund also will finance programs to make telehealth and broadband affordable, train people how to use the technology, and repair the technology if it breaks. If you don’t have these support programs, people won’t use the Internet or computers even if they are free.

Telehealth Hubs

Institutions need a plan for guiding all of these adoption activities. NTIA has experience with huge broadband adoption grants and knows how to support broadband adoption. However, a lot of communities could have problems with the telehealth adoption. They might need to partner with the Federal Communications Commission, U.S. Health and Human Services, and others. If institutions think all they need for telehealth adoption is a video screen and Zoom, there’s trouble on the horizon.

The essence of broadband adoption is 1) daily access to the Internet at speeds, quality, and capacity necessary to accomplish common tasks, 2) digital skills necessary to fully participate online, 3) on a personal device and secure convenient network. By swapping in “equitable” for “daily,” we now have a definition of telehealth adoption.

Jean Polster, CEO of Neighborhood Family Practice in Cleveland, has seven offices that serve predominately low-income populations. She was one of the first organizations to land a FCC telehealth grant in 2020 that enabled her to go from 0 to 80% telehealth services in a month or two. Despite all of the money and equipment she received, she couldn’t serve her patients who didn’t have Internet access in their homes.

“If you consider the person who has chronic illness and is older, they are also the one who is less likely to be tech savvy,” says Polster. “They are also the one that’s less likely to have broadband access. How do we get Internet access to those patients? Are we able to teach them to use the technology?”

Getting help to ensure that applications run smoothly is another need.

“What happens if there isn’t technical support when someone, a doctor or patient, has a problem with an app?” asked Peter Caplan, the managing consultant for New York-based eHealth Systems & Solutions. “Who's training patients what to do if the Net has a glitch? During Covid, many doctors didn’t fully understand how to properly do a virtual medical consult.”

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

While broadband advocates everywhere laude the BRIDGE Act, Ohio legislators, at the behest of Charter, are heading in a dangerous and harmful direction.

Charter and their pocket-legislators are trying to strip away – and without public debate – any type of community broadband, even if totally paid for by federal dollars. Without any protection from technology obsolescence, Ohio legislators are dragging their constituents back to the technology Dark Ages when AOL was the bleeding edge. The legislators pushing this move aren’t representatives, they’re corporate footmen.

This proposed legislation would ban any local government ownership of, or partnership in, a broadband network that provides retail or wholesale access to any area that already has wired or wireless Internet service at speeds of 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up. This apparently applies to all local “subdivisions” of the state including cities, counties, townships, school districts, port authorities, etc.

“The ‘government network amendment’ is obviously intended to put Ohio’s handful of municipal broadband providers, like FairlawnGig and Bryan Municipal Utilities Internet service, out of business,” says Bill Callahan, director of Connect Your Community. “It will prevent any new ones from emerging as a result of federal infrastructure money. But it could disrupt communities’ ability to promote Internet access, adoption and equity at many other levels.”

The Ohio bill could have devastating consequences, giving inordinate power to the very corporations that have proven over and over that they don’t care about the communities they serve. They care about the bottom line.

Municipal broadband provides an effective alternative for communities where private-sector companies aren’t meeting demand for affordable, fast broadband. The BRIDGE Act will do good for underserved communities. Defeating the Ohio bill and others like it will too.

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