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
The fact is, from electricity to Internet service, cooperatives have taken the lead in bringing new technology to rural areas. They have been building next-generation Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) networks in order to ensure that every farm, business, and household is connected within their service territories.
Both telephone and electric cooperatives have built FTTH, but electric cooperatives have hit a few bumps with the language of the easements and lack of clarity in state law. For instance, Lake Region Electric Cooperative in Oklahoma had to go door-to-door to ask people to update their easements to include broadband service. Having a law on the books stating that the easements can be used for both electricity and broadband saves cooperatives significant time and money better spent on deploying the next-generation network.
We first saw Indiana make the change in the law for electric cooperative easements in 2017. Since then, the law has been cited as one of the factors that helped encourage Orange County REMC to develop a FTTH network. Now that states are clarifying that electric co-ops have the legal freedom to offer broadband, people who suffer with poor Internet access in these states know that their cooperatives can move forward with projects to improve local connectivity.