New State Laws Ease the Way for Electric Co-op Broadband

Across the country, state legislatures are ushering in better rural connectivity by passing new laws that enable electric cooperatives to expand high-quality Internet access. In recent years, much of this legislation has authorized co-ops to deploy broadband infrastructure along existing electric easements. Other bills have removed restrictions that previously prevented electric co-ops from providing Internet access. Together, the new legislation makes it easier for electric cooperatives to bring high-speed broadband access to their members, signaling a brighter future for unconnected rural communities

Indiana in the Lead

Indiana’s state legislature was ahead of the curve when it passed SB 478, the Facilitating Internet Broadband Rural Expansion (FIBRE) Act back in 2017. The FIBRE Act permits electric cooperatives to use easements for their electric poles to also deploy broadband networks. Before the General Assembly passed this legislation, cooperatives that wanted to install communications infrastructure, such as fiber optic lines, along their electric easements would have to gain permission from each individual landowner to attach fiber to the existing poles.

Since the passage of the FIBRE Act two years ago, a number of Indiana electric cooperatives have embarked on broadband projects, including Jackson County Rural Electric Membership Corporation (REMC), South Central Indiana REMC, Orange County REMC, and Tipmont REMC. At the announcement event for South Central Indiana REMC’s fiber project, State Senator Eric Koch, author of SB 478, noted that state legislation like the FIBRE Act was enabling electric cooperatives to expand modern connectivity to rural Indiana.

State Laws Advance Co-op Broadband

A wave of support for rural cooperative broadband initiatives rippled through state legislatures during the 2019 session, perhaps a sign that states are recognizing that federal efforts alone will be inadequate to close the rural-urban digital divide.

Following Indiana’s lead with the FIBRE Act, several states have passed similar laws that empower electric co-ops to deploy communications networks along existing easements. Earlier this year, we reported on the passage of SB 2 in Georgia and SB 634 in Maryland, which enable the use of co-op easements for broadband expansion. In that article and earlier, we noted that similar legislation was pending in Alabama (HB 400) and Texas (SB 14). The governors of the two states have since signed both bills into law. Colorado’s version of the easement act, SB 19, became law as well in early June.

utility-pole-1.png Some state laws addressed other legal impediments that were hampering electric cooperatives’ efforts to expand Internet access. In addition to ensuring that electric co-ops have access to easements for broadband deployment, North Carolina’s S 310, which we wrote about in March, also removed restrictions that prevented electric cooperatives from accessing federal funding for broadband projects. After pressure from the state Public Service Commission, Mississippi’s state legislature passed the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act, HB 366 almost unanimously, lifting the ban on electric cooperatives providing Internet access. Enthusiasm for the measure proved once again that access to broadband is a bipartisan issue.

With State Support, Co-ops Connect Rural America

Just as they electrified rural homes, businesses, and farms in the last century, electric cooperatives play an essential role in bringing today’s essential infrastructure, high-speed connectivity, to all Americans. While the federal government continues to subsidize national monopolies in an ineffective attempt to expand rural broadband, electric cooperatives are busy connecting their members to some of the fastest networks in the country. State legislatures can act now to close the rural-urban digital divide by supporting electric cooperatives as one of the most promising options for improving rural Internet access.

For more on how rural cooperatives are bringing high-quality connectivity to their communities, view our updated report, Cooperatives Fiberize Rural America: A Trusted Model for the Internet Era.