COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Legislation to help expand high-speed internet access in underserved and rural areas of Ohio is getting bipartisan support and fast-tracked consideration at the Statehouse as the coronavirus pandemic increases pressure to address that digital divide.

A measure that would direct $210 million toward increasing broadband access passed the House on Thursday with wide support. The total includes $20 million annually over three fiscal years, plus another $150 million for the coming year that was part of Republican Gov. Mike DeWine's state budget proposal.

“Internet is not a luxury in 2021,” said Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, one of the bill's sponsors. “It’s a necessity.”

State officials say an estimated 300,000 households and more than 1 million residents across Ohio lack high-speed internet. The problem has been exacerbated by the pandemic as more people have relied on digital connectivity for remote work, virtual schooling, telehealth appointments, social and support services, online business transactions and interactions with family and friends.

In testimony from proponents of the bill, lawmakers heard story after story about the importance of broadband for all sorts of Ohioans, such as children doing homework, dairy farmers using robotic milking systems, and employers who had to furlough staff who didn't have access to work remotely during COVID-19 restrictions.

The broadband bill would create a grant program to help overcome the cost hurdles that dissuade broadband providers from connecting hard-to-reach homes. The grants would fund parts of such projects that providers might otherwise consider cost-prohibitive and unjustifiable from a business perspective.

That approach combines the efforts of government and business to expand connectivity, said Rep. Rick Carfagna, R-Genoa Township, who sponsored the House proposal after advocating two other versions that fell short of passage in previous years.

The legislation would still need approval from the Senate. That chamber recently passed a similar bill to create such a program, but it didn't include the same funding specifications.

Even if the grant program is approved and broadband infrastructure is added, that isn't enough to solve the problem, Director Susan Jagers of the Ohio Poverty Law Center warned lawmakers. She noted in her testimony that many of the families lacking high-speed internet live in areas where broadband is available and simply can't afford to pay for it.

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