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Community Broadband Legislation Roundup - May 11, 2021
Florida Legislature rewrites utility pole bill to include language backed by municipal electric utilities
North Carolina’s County Broadband Authority Act includes clause drawing criticism from electric co-ops
Oklahoma Governor signs mapping bill, vetoes measure adding Tribal representation to state broadband council
The State Scene
A Florida bill, which included provisions that would have forced Florida’s municipal electric utilities and their ratepayers to pay private Internet Service Providers’ utility pole make-ready costs, was significantly revised before passing the State House by a unanimous vote of 115-0 on April 28.
H.B. 1239, which no longer includes the make-ready costs provisions, initially read like a regulatory wishlist for incumbent cable monopolies until it was redrafted to become a legislative package aimed at improving broadband deployment across the state. The revised bill now heads to the State Gov. Ron DeSantis for approval.
The final version of the bill establishes additional duties for Florida’s Office of Broadband, creates a state broadband grant program, and requires the Office to conduct mapping of unserved and underserved areas of the state -- a significant deviation from the version that was first introduced in February.
The initial version was sponsored by the Florida Internet and Television Association, of which Charter and Comcast are members, capitol insiders noted. Proponents of the initial language argued that lowering the costs municipal electric utilities charge private ISPs for attaching to their utility poles was a necessary prerequisite to attract private investment in rural communities, and would have required electric utilities statewide to provide private ISPs with access to their poles at a capped rate. The stripped-out portion of the bill had also included tax exemptions on the majority of equipment private ISPs purchased.
The new version of H.B. 1239 contains language that Florida Municipal Electric Association’s (FMEA) grassroots lobbying team worked with the Speaker of the House and Senate President to get included.
Under the negotiated language, Florida’s 33 electric utilities must “offer an incentive rate of $1 per attachment (far below actual costs) to any broadband provider that will bring high-speed Internet services to any unserved or underserved” community served by public power, according to a FMEA press release. The final language also prohibits municipal electric utilities from raising attachment fees charged to ISPs under existing contracts for one year. The bill was further rewritten to preserve existing contracts and maintain local safety requirements.
A last-minute bill filed by State Sen. Kevin Corbin aims to give North Carolina counties the authority to construct broadband networks within county limits, using general, State and federal funds.
The County Broadband Authority Act’s main intention is to give counties the authority to provide Internet service on a wholesale basis, building open-access networks and leasing the infrastructure to private or nonprofit ISPs to provide high-speed Internet service. Yet the bill contains provisions eerily similar to the Florida bill that at first required electric utilities to shoulder the cost of private ISPs’ pole attachment fees. A clause included in S.B. 689 would require electric cooperatives and municipalities to cover private ISPs’ make-ready costs and allow them unfettered access to their poles.
The provision requiring co-ops and munis to cover private ISPs costs has little connection with the intention of the County Authority Act and is facing opposition from North Carolina’s electric co-ops. In a news release, Tom Batchelor, CEO and executive vice president of Haywood Electric Membership Corporation, expressed concern that the legislation “could shift broadband costs to rural ratepayers,” reported The Mountaineer.
In response to criticism of the make-ready portion of the bill, State Sen. Kevin Corbin has vowed to change it. “That bill was literally filed on the last day possible and was not really complete. I will put language in there to make sure co-ops are held harmless and make sure providers share in the costs,” Corbin said.
A North Carolina state law, standing since 2011, (H.B. 129) has limited local governments’ ability to build broadband networks. As North Carolina’s counties are primed to receive more than $2 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds, eligible to be used for investments in broadband infrastructure, it is critical to expand county authority to offer Internet access on a wholesale basis.
This legislation would “give counties the legislative authority they need to maximize funding opportunities provided in the American Rescue Plan to expand broadband access,” according to a press release issued by the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners. “Federal law allows some of the American Rescue Plan Act funds to be invested in broadband infrastructure, but state law in North Carolina restricts counties’ ability to use the money flexibly and comprehensively.”
“The County Broadband Authority, would address the number one legislative goal for all 100 North Carolina counties, which seek to expand digital infrastructure and broadband capability to the state’s unserved and underserved residents.”
Gov. Kevin Stitt has signed a bill that requires Internet Service Providers operating in Oklahoma to double-check the accuracy of FCC mapping. H.B. 2928 requires ISPs to annually submit the same mapping data to the Oklahoma Rural Broadband Expansion Council that providers are required to submit to the FCC under the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act.
The bill proposes that after the FCC completes “the National Broadband Availability Map, the Rural Broadband Expansion Council [will] annually evaluate whether the State of Oklahoma needs to continue producing an annually updated statewide broadband map.” Though the bill attempts to verify the accuracy of federal mapping, ISPs would be allowed to report advertised download and upload speeds, rather than the actual varied speeds end-users experience, which many observers say is a key problem with FCC mapping data.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma lawmakers passed seven broadband related bills in March, including one (H.B. 2090) that has already been vetoed by Gov. Stitt. That bill aimed to expand the number of members on Oklahoma’s Rural Broadband Expansion Council from 14 to 16. The two additional council members would represent Native American tribes and wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs).
In his veto message, Gov. Stitt called the task force unnecessary and duplicative. His full message reads:
House Bill 2090 makes changes to the recently created Rural Broadband Expansion Council. It adds two new members to an unnecessary task force.
Digital transformation has been and remains a top priority for my administration. Shortly after taking office, this administration created a broadband task force and brought together key stakeholders to focus on improving broadband in our state. As a result, our state’s broadband service has improved from 47th to 25th in the nation during my time in office. We brought together key players in this arena and the administration’s task force yielded great results. This legislation does nothing to improve a duplicative task force.
According to NonDoc, Stitt “clashed with House leadership last year regarding digital transformation efforts and a Rural Broadband Expansion Council pushed for by House Speaker Charles McCall.” Now that the measure has been vetoed, the bill has been sent back to the State House, where lawmakers will decide whether or not to attempt to override the decision.
State lawmakers are working on several other bills:
H.B. 2040 seeks to create a sales tax exemption for certain broadband equipment purchased in order to expand Internet service in underserved or unserved areas, such as fiber optic conduit. The legislation would provide $20 million in rebate for providers in Fiscal Year 2022, with $15 million allocated for rural areas and $5 million for urban areas. A conference request between the Oklahoma House and Senate over the bill was granted on May 4.
H.B. 1122 would require rural electric cooperatives to charge no more than $21 per utility pole attachment, per year to communications services providers. A nearly identical bill (H.B. 1923) currently sits in the State Senate.
H.B. 2779 would provide easements for broadband providers attempting to access rural electric cooperative’s above-ground assets.
H.B. 1124 would establish a state broadband grant program at the Commerce Department.
A bill to create Ohio’s first-ever statewide broadband grant program (H.B. 2) is awaiting the approval of Gov. Mike DeWine. The bill would dedicate $20 million to the grant program for Fiscal Year 2021, available to broadband providers aiming to expand Internet service into unserved or underserved areas of the state.
While the measure would be a broadband milestone for the state, there is room for improvement in the bill. The enrolled version of H.B. 2 would not allow municipal or cooperative networks to access state funding through the program, although amendments to expand the program to municipal providers and electric utilities were considered by the Senate Financial Institutions and Technology Committee and the House Finance Committee.
H.B. 2 would also enable private ISPs to access electric cooperative poles for distribution purposes; however, co-ops would be authorized to deny access to an ISP for reasons of insufficient capacity or conflict with general safety standards.
More funding for the program is expected to come from the state Fiscal Year 2022 budget bill. The version of the budget passed by the State House on April 21 allocates $170 million for the program in 2022. H.B. 2 includes an emergency clause and would go into effect immediately.
A bill that would establish a $180 million grant program to be administered by the Louisiana Office of Broadband Development and Connectivity (H.B. 648) is scheduled for a floor debate in the State House, on May 11.
Though elected leaders in the city of Acadiana are pushing for state lawmakers to use federal stimulus funds to invest in Fiber-to-the-Home infrastructure, the bill, as of yet, only requires grant recipients to deploy networks capable of delivering Internet with speeds of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload.