Broadband everywhere would be fitting legacy to 2020

By Steve Buehrer

No word better describes COVID-19’s impact on the world in 2020 than “transformation.” Not only were the lives of everyone in the world changed, but every part of their lives were changed as well — how they learn, work, play and relate to others. And, in many instances, these changes won’t “snap back” once the pandemic passes. They’re here to stay.

While the sudden and significant transformations we have all experienced have brought disruptive and isolating burdens, it’s incumbent on us to also try to learn from them and improve.

For instance, a tectonic shift to remote work — which has become near-universal in some sectors — was once unthinkable. It’s now touted by many employers as a key driver behind productivity gains thanks to quicker meetings and less travel. Online learning has brought its struggles, but it has also opened doors to new classes, idea-sharing and customized coursework only possible in an online environment. And who hasn’t upped their intake of streaming entertainment content? Streaming companies have had a banner year, and movie studios are redirecting their attention to the home and away from the cinema.

Connecting all this transformation — though often forgotten — is technology, specifically, internet access. Without adequate internet access, the ability for us to use our homes as work, school and entertainment centers simply wouldn’t be possible.

Realizing that the trend toward more home-based online activities and greater use of connected devices has only been accelerating, internet service providers have steadily been investing in the broadband network in Ohio and across the country. In fact, these efforts have been so successful that less than 300,000 of Ohio’s 4.73 million households lack internet access. While it’s encouraging that so many Ohioans can access internet service if they choose, the contrast is stark and the problems and limitations are numerous for those who don’t have this option.

The most frequent reason a residence lacks access to the internet is its remote location, although there can be other reasons as well. For Ohioans impacted, however, the “why it happens” doesn’t matter as much as the “when will it be fixed?” To tackle this problem, thought leaders from a range of areas—economic development, education, technology and government, to name a few—have increasingly come together to find solutions and the common theme that always emerges is “public-private partnership.”

Fortunately, expanding broadband access has been a priority of our state leaders as well, and significant progress is being made in finding a solution. It is widely expected that, after the turn of the year, the legislation will be finalized by the General Assembly and Gov. Mike DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted to allow Ohio to make a major step forward in expanding broadband access.

The solution that has won wide agreement would allow private internet providers to partner with the state government to identify areas in need of broadband service and then to receive seed money to supplement private investment in network infrastructure. Not only has the DeWine-Husted administration advocated for this approach and supported legislation to implement it, but the administration has also already identified $20 million to jump-start it. With legislation already passed in the House, Senate approval can hopefully come in the coming session. If the pandemic could lead Ohio to bring broadband internet access to every Ohioan, it would not only be the ultimate in making lemonade out of lemons, it would provide a powerful competitive advantage to our state in the face of the pandemic’s strong economic headwinds.

As we look with optimism to 2021 and the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccines, we must acknowledge that many of the changes brought by 2020 are here to stay. However, by coming together to close the current broadband gaps, we can help make sure that these changes can be as beneficial as possible to as many Ohioans as possible, which only helps enhance our future growth and prosperity. The pandemic has required us to work together to stay safe. It would be a fitting tribute to the burdens — and losses — it has imposed on all of us if we emerged with an Ohio that was better-connected, for all and forever.