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More high-speed Internet for Ohio?

COLUMBUS — High-speed Internet would spread to about 1 million unserved or underserved Ohioans along rural routes and highways previously off-limits to private development under a strategic plan released Thursday.

If approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the aggressive blueprint for expanding and improving broadband access across the state also would give extra points to Ohio local governments’ applications for related federal grants.

The improvements are vital because Ohio’s lack of connectivity is putting the state at a disadvantage, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine said in a statement. The strategic document comes as digital giants, including Microsoft and Facebook, are working to solve a connectivity problem in rural, often poor areas of the U.S. that has confounded policymakers for decades.

The Ohio plan emerged from a fact-finding effort by DeWine’s administration, which identified a number of causes in September for the problem being so stubborn, particularly in Appalachia. Besides access to roadway rights, it found outdated tax codes, missed funding opportunities, bureaucratic red tape and maps that incorrectly showed where service is available.

InnovateOhio, the state’s technology office, upgraded Ohio’s Connected Nation broadband maps in conjunction with Thursday’s release. By converting them into interactive GIS map layers, they’ll be easier for journalists, researchers and legislators to explore, the office said.

Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, who oversees InnovateOhio, said the plan is necessary to help Ohio compete for federal resources that public-private partnerships can use to make needed improvements.

“The Ohio Broadband Strategy is a crucial step forward in our efforts to bridge the digital divide and deliver high-speed Internet access to unserved and underserved areas of this state,” he said.

The plan also calls for establishing a telehealth pilot that would provide mental health services in underserved areas of the state, including some hard hit by the opioid crisis, and a regulatory review of the industry. It also would ask the General Assembly to create an Internet grant program to support connectivity improvements in low-population areas and rural communities.

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