Richland County courthouse

Richland County Courthouse

MANSFIELD -- Richland County commissioners on Tuesday afternoon approved spending up to $2 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to expand broadband internet access to unserved and underserved portions of the county.

The money, part of $23.4 million in total ARPA funding Richland County the county is receiving this year and next, will leverage "substantially more" state and private dollars for the project, according to commissioners.

Commissioners made the unanimous decision after meeting with Ashley Karlen, manager of government affairs for Charter Communications, which owns the Spectrum-brand internet service.

She said Charter has identified several counties in which it would like to expand access, including Richland.

Also attending the meeting and speaking in favor of the effort were Jodie Perry, president and CEO of Richland Chamber & Economic Development, and Jotika Shetty, executive director of the Richland County Regional Planning Commission.

"Broadband is clearly the utility of the future and using state and private funds to help the local effort is a can't-miss proposition," Perry said.

Commissioners also approved an application for the Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion Grant Program, funded by the state legislature in the budget earlier this year, with about $270 million available statewide.

The program is administered by BroadbandOhio, a division of the Ohio Department of Development.

According to the state website, grants will be provided to help with the infrastructure costs of projects and help build the networks in areas that a lack high-speed internet.

Karlen said Tuesday there are about 988 unserved/underserved residences in the county, primarily in the northeast and northwest corners of the county. She said the project could also benefit future business growth in those areas.

"If a business wanted to locate there in the future, the (broadband) infrastructure would already be in place," she said.

The grants will cover the “broadband funding gap,” which is the difference between the total amount of money a broadband provider, such as Charter, calculates is necessary to construct the last mile of a specific broadband network and the total amount of money the provider has determined is the maximum amount of money that is cost effective for the provider to invest in "last mile construction for that network."

Karlen said grant applications will be evaluated and rated based on the ratio of unserved and underserved addresses to total county addresses, the distress level of the county involved and the "ratio of local match to the gap we're requesting from (the state)," Karlen said.

"A lot of local counties are using their ARPA dollars for the local match," she said, adding the project would bring fiber cables directly to the sides of residents' homes.

Commissioner Tony Vero said he had discussed the project with Perry, Shetty and Karlen.

"We discussed an amount we felt was appropriate to allow Richland County to put its best foot forward in terms of broadband expansion," Vero said.

"The ($2 million) was not capriciously thrown out there. We felt this was a reasonable amount (needed) to leverage a substantial amount more," he said, adding the county is not committed to the project if the anticipated state grant is not provided.

A decision on state grants is expected in the first quarter of 2022. Karlen said Charter, once all needed permits are approved, can complete the project in two years.

"It make sense to me," Commissioner Darrel Banks said. "Without an investment from state and local money, we don't get the private money. If we get all three, we can make it happen."

The amount of state grants the project may receive is unknown. Karlen said Charter's planned investment is "proprietary information" at this time, though it will become known if the project gets ultimate approval.

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City editor. 30-year plus journalist. Husband. Father of 3 grown sons and also a proud grandpa. Prior military journalist in U.S. Navy, Ohio Air National Guard. -- Favorite quote: "Where were you when the page was blank?"