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Editorial: Oklahoma Broadband Expansion Act Worth Support | Editorials

Oklahoma lawmakers are considering a bill that could dramatically improve internet service for large swaths of the state that have long been underserved.

House Bill 3363, the Oklahoma Broadband Expansion Act, would use currently available federal funds to extend broadband service to rural areas of Oklahoma. The plan’s goal is to bring broadband to 95% of the state by 2028.

The bill would create a state broadband office headed by an executive director and a nine-member board. The office would oversee the distribution of federal funds — available through the American Rescue Plan Act — for this purpose.

This would be a major milestone in terms of the state’s economic development and education efforts.

Much of rural Oklahoma lags the state’s urban centers in broadband access. State Rep. Danny Williams, R-Seminole, wrote this week in the Shawnee News-Star that Oklahoma ranks 43rd nationally for broadband access. Only 48% of rural households have broadband connectivity.

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It doesn’t just affect business. Lack of broadband access has hit rural households particularly hard during the pandemic, when many schools switched to distance learning. Homes without a decent internet connection faced additional challenges for school-aged children.

In an increasingly technological and competitive world, we cannot afford to leave so many people behind.

“With all the funds now available for broadband expansion, a dedicated office is needed to maximize their benefits for all Oklahomans,” said House Speaker Charles McCall, author of the legislation.

“House Republicans support broadband expansion because it is critical infrastructure that creates jobs and is as essential as telephones or roads in modern life.”

The proposal is written to be economical. The fee will cover the new office’s budget, avoiding a dip in the state’s general fund, according to the wording of the bill. Once the 95% connectivity target was achieved, the Broadband Office would be disbanded.

HB 3363 is a good example of mobilizing federal resources to meet a need here at home. After congressional debate over ARPA died down, state leaders chose to move beyond partisan concerns and get to work on real-world issues that affect hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans.

By attaching a specific purpose and timeout provision, HB 3363 adds a layer of accountability. Instead of permanently expanding state government with nebulous goals, the measure would establish a goal-oriented framework that can be disbanded once the task is complete.

HB 3363 is a bill that should gain widespread and bipartisan support. Improving economic prospects for rural Oklahoma will in turn improve prospects for the entire state.

We recommend that you pass HB 3363 and sign it into law.