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A pair of broadband bills in Pennsylvania (one of which has been signed into law by the governor, and the other having passed one chamber) represent a collective step forward for broadband by updating regulations and establishing a broadband grant program so as to promote network expansion in rural and unserved parts of the state of Pennsylvania.
Fewer Restrictions, More Money
The first is House Bill 2438 [pdf], which allows electric cooperatives to use existing easements for an affiliate to deliver broadband service without re-negotiating with property owners. The bill also allows cable companies to use cooperative-owned poles with permission and in accordance with existing rates and regulations. It’s designed to make it faster, cheaper, and easier to bring Internet access to rural parts of the state.
Johnstown Area Regional Industries entrepreneurial coach Blake Fleegle said of the legislation:
Every county in our region is looking at bringing high-dollar earners to our region. Employers are finding people can be just as effective working in Johnstown as they would be in Washington, D.C., or Pittsburgh. But they need to connect, and that's where broadband comes into play.
Chad Carrick, President and CEO of REA Energy Cooperative, likewise welcomed the legislation while emphasizing the role electric co-ops will play in the state:
It may be hard for some to believe, but there is a good 40% of Indiana and Cambria counties that either don't have broadband Internet access or it's not up to snuff, according to our surveys to our membership.
2438 passed the state House in June, the Senate at the end of October, and was signed into law by the governor at the end of last month.
Realtors a Voice for Property Owners as Colorado Advances Broadband - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 370
Multiple studies in recent years indicate that properties with fast, reliable Internet access sell faster, bring in a higher price, and are in demand by potential buyers. Properties with slow or no Internet access languish. In Colorado, where the market is competitive and broadband is available in a good portion of the state, organizations like the Colorado Association of Realtors play an important role in protecting property owners rights. This week, Vice President of Government Affairs from the Association Elizabeth Peetz stops in to talk with Christopher.
Colorado is taking positive approaches toward expanding broadband in both funding and in policies that encourage deployment. Liz talks about how the Association has become involved in legislative advocacy and how broadband has become one of their priorities. She describes how the Association has weighed in on policy changes to help ensure the rights of property owners. Liz discusses collaboration at the Capitol to reach a common goal and Colorado’s investment in funding, especially in rural areas.
Christopher and Liz also talk about what people can do to let their elected officials and community leaders see the strong link between real estate and broadband policy. Allowing the market to function as it should can make a huge difference.
Learn more about the Colorado Association of Realtors at coloradorealtors.com.
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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
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
Legislative changes are helping electric cooperatives continue to expand high-quality Internet access in rural parts of America. At least three state governments have bills in the works that empower cooperatives to provide high-speed Internet service in their service territories.
Georgia, Maryland, Alabama
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp recently signed into law SB 2 and SB 17, which clarify that both electric and telephone cooperatives are able to provide broadband service. This change allows the electric cooperatives to use their easements which have been used for electric service to extend those easements so they also apply to equipment and lines needed in order to supply broadband service. Electric cooperatives have already been at work on providing Internet service in Georgia: Habersham Electric Cooperative operates Trailwave Network, and the Pineland Telephone and Jefferson Energy Cooperatives have partnered to bring Internet service to their communities.
In Maryland, Governor Larry Hogan has just approved SB 634 which similarly underscores how electric cooperatives can use their easements to provide broadband. Meanwhile in Alabama, HB 400 will codify in existing law that electric cooperatives have the ability to offer broadband service and that their easements are valid for that use. Alabama HB 400 has passed in the House and is now working its way through the Senate. Alabama cooperatives North Alabama Electric and Tom Bigbee Electric already provides high-speed Internet service in their service territories.
Cooperatives Bring New Tech to Rural Areas
Two pieces of recently introduced legislation in North Carolina’s General Assembly show a potential to help grow broadband in rural areas. In the past, state lawmakers have kept publicly owned Internet networks tightly reined in to protect cable and telephone monopolies operating in the state, but the restrictions may be loosening as state leaders recognize the need for more options.
The FIBER NC Act
The long list and leadership positions of sponsors attached to H 431 indicate that the FIBER NC Act shows promise. It’s four primary sponsors include the Rules Committee Chair and a Finance Committee Chair, which also bodes well for the future of H 431. Our friends at the North Carolina League of Municipalities (NCLM) tell us that they expect a similar companion bill with equal muscle behind it to come from the Senate.
The FIBER Act would change existing barriers to allow municipalities and local government the authority to invest in publicly owned broadband infrastructure in order to work with private sector partners. The bill also includes procedures that local governments must follow if they decide to pursue a public-private partnership, including conducting a feasibility study, and proper notification and execution of meetings. Within the language of H 431, the authors include specific instructions for publication and advertisement that describe the opportunity to lease the infrastructure.
Bipartisan support of the bill and the fact that almost 50 House Members, in addition to the four sponsors, have signed on add to the optimism that H 431 has a bright future. Folks at NCLM have expressed strong support for the bill and are galvanizing constituents to encourage elected officials to move H 431 forward.
It’s first stop is the Committee on Energy and Public Utilities. If it passes there, H 431 will move on to Finance and then to the Rules Committee.
Untying Cooperative Hands
In the past year, communities and cooperatives in Texas have been making gallant efforts to better connect local residents and businesses with high-quality Internet access. Now, they may get a little help from the State Legislature.
Earlier in this session, Senator Robert Nichols introduced SB 14, a bill that will allow electric cooperatives that hold easements obtained for electric service infrastructure the ability to extend those easements to broadband infrastructure. The bill replicates the FIBRE Act, a 2017 Indiana bill that opened up possibilities for rural cooperatives in that state.
Nichols told KLTV that he has high hopes for his bill:
“I’m getting a lot of support because all of the other plans for broadband that have been proposed use subsidies,” said Nichols. “This one asks the state for nothing, it asks the federal government for nothing.”
He also told KLTV that the Governor’s office has expressed support for the proposal.
Read the text of the bill.
Similar to Indiana’s FIBRE Act, the extension of the easement applies to those that already exist. By enacting making the change, cooperatives that already have infrastructure in place will save time in deploying fiber optic networks because they won’t need to obtain a second set of easements from members who’ve already granted them for electricity infrastructure.
In addition to offering broadband to members sooner, cooperatives who are able to take advantage in the change in the law will also save financially. Personnel costs, filing, and administrative fees add up when a co-op must obtain multiple, sometimes dozens or hundreds, of legal easements. Occasionally, a property owner doesn’t consent to an easement right away. This change in the law will prevent hang-ups in deployment due to uncooperative property owners that can jeopardize a project.
Back Home Again in Indiana
As one electric cooperative in Indiana is engaged in a project to offer broadband, another project close by is in the works. As rural cooperatives take steps to offer broadband, local communities want to help local co-ops deploy in their areas.
Jackson County Project Moving Ahead
Last summer, Jackson County Rural Electric Membership Corporation (REMC) announced that they had finalized a plan to deploy Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) to every service member within their 1,400 square mile service area.
With the strong support of Jackson County leadership, the cooperative started work on phase 1, a plan to establish a backbone through most of the ten counties where REMC members live and work. The first phase of the extensive $60 million project is about one-third finished. This phase will also allow the co-op the chance to connect the first 990 premises in order to work out any issues and refine services before reaching more homes and businesses. As they finish up the first phase, REMC is beginning to plan phase 2.
At a January meeting that involved community leaders in the region and cooperatives, REMC General Manager Mark McKinney provided an update:
“We are in the process now of evaluating where phase two will be. We’re about a third of the way through phase one, which was approximately 330 miles of fiber optic cable being installed. When this is all said and done, if everything goes as planned, we’ll be looking at over 2,000 miles of fiber being installed. This is not fiber to the curb, this will be fiber all the way into the home.”
REMC expects to start serving approximately 1,000 customers in the Brownstown areas in February.
The State Legislature in Indiana sent SB 478 to Governor Eric Holcomb earlier this session; he recently signed the bill into law. Also known as the Facilitating Internet Broadband Rural Expansion (FIBRE) Act, the new law allows electric cooperatives with easements for electric lines to use those same easement for fiber infrastructure. The change in existing law will allow rural electric cooperatives to bring high-quality Internet access to the many rural regions in Indiana that are now unserved or underserved.
Updating Easements For Connectivity
SB 478 applies only to existing easements between electric suppliers and property owners. It doesn’t apply to new electric easements, railroad property, or the installation of new poles, conduit, or other structures. Other exceptions also apply to limit the new easement applications to existing infrastructure.
The language of the bill provides in detail the steps that a property owner can take if they oppose the installation of the new infrastructure under the purview of an existing easement. It also lays out the information that an electricity provider must provide to the property owner regarding the plan for fiber infrastructure deployment and planned delivery. The bill goes on to establish further procedures if a property owner decides to pursue legal action if they feel their property value is decreased due to the new infrastructure or other related matters.
Lastly, the bill lays out procedural requirements for an electric cooperative that decides to offer broadband Internet. They must create a separate entity and maintain a separate accounting system.
Learning From The Co-op Guys
Republican State Senator Eric Koch, lead author on the bill, introduced the legislation as part of his ongoing efforts to improve connectivity in Indiana’s rural areas. According to a March article in the Indiana Economic Digest:
Celina, Texas, recently started its journey toward publicly owned Internet infrastructure by adopting a smart, forward-thinking conduit ordinance. The decision to adopt the new Easement Ordinance is part of the city’s long-term vision to bring gigabit connectivity to businesses and residents.
The new policy requires developers to install conduit and fiber-optic cable in underground excavation within the city limits. Developers pay for the installation and then convey the assets to the city. In order to reduce the need for excavations and cut costs, Mount Vernon, Washington, passed a similar ordinance years ago as they developed their network. Up to 90 percent of costs associated with underground deployment are often due to the excavation rather than materials; smart dig once policies like Celina's saves public dollars.
Internet service providers who wish to offer connectivity in the areas where city fiber and conduit exist will be required to use available dark fiber from the city, rather than deploying their own infrastructure. The ordinance does allow the city provide exceptions in order to promote competition and reduce any barriers to entry for new ISPs.
Before the city council unanimously voted to support the new ordinance in May, they took feedback from the community. According to the Celina Record, several local developers expressed excitement over the Gigabit City Initiative, but weren’t as enthusiastic about the ordinance. Their main concern was how the new rule would be implemented.
They have reason to be excited about the potential to add Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) connectivity to their new properties. In 2015, the Fiber To The Home Council’s study determined that FTTH access can add up to $5,437 to the value of a $175,000 home.
Residents Require Something Better
The Rockbridge Area Network Authority (RANA) is almost ready to launch its open access network in north central Virginia, home to about 22,000 people. A recipient of the BTOP stimulus program, the main focus is connecting community anchor institutions and spurring economic development. However, it has been built to allow service providers to also offer DSL to some residents in the area.
Dan Grim, GIS Manager for Rockbridge County, and one of the driving forces behind the network was kind enough to walk us through the project. In early 2007, the cities of Buena Vista, Lexington, and the County joined forces to commission a study to determine the need for a county wide broadband network. The three jurisdictions matched funding from the state Department of Housing and Community Development to pay for the study, completed in 2008.
Grim had already consulted with local provider, Rockbridge Global Village, about using a regional network to improve public safety mapping. Rockbridge Global Village President, Dusan Janjic, suggested a bigger project and that the three entities apply together for American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding.
Richard Peterson, Chief Technology Officer from nearby W&L determined that the school needed a new and updated data center. In 2009, RANA was officially formed as a collaboration between the local governments and Washington & Lee. The University joined the group and contributed $2.5 million toward a $3 million grant fund match. With the grant fund match to improve their chances, RANA applied for a $10 million BTOP award and received $6.9 million in funding through round two in 2010.
Peterson passed away in 2011. Grim notes that without Peterson, the network would never have expanded so far and may not have become a reality. The data center was later named after him to honor his memory. Network construction started in February 2012.