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State Legislatures Warming to Electric Co-op Broadband

Randy Sukow Jan 22, 2019

One of the most noteworthy developments in recent state-level rural legislation was the April 2017 passage of a Tennessee law allowing electric cooperatives to operate broadband facilities outside their electric areas. Nearly two years later, it appears that some other states that currently place limits on electric cooperative broadband may be ready to loosen their laws.

On January 15, the Mississippi House passed 115-3 the “Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act" (House Bill 366), a bill to allow electric cooperatives "to establish, acquire, and wholly or partially own one or more broadband affiliates." The bill is now in committee in the state senate.

HB 366 specifies that co-ops have the option to build broadband facilities for internal operations only or offer broadband services to the public as well. The bill gives co-ops wide discretion over whether to allow outside broadband operators or affiliates to use or lease its facilities. The bill does, however, put limits on the amount that co-ops or affiliates may charge for broadband service and it does not allow cross-subsidization of broadband service with electric power revenues.

Before providing public broadband service, the bill would require the co-op to “have an economic feasibility study conducted and adopt a plan that will provide service to its entire certificated area. Such feasibility study shall be made available to electric cooperative members upon request.”

“This is a historic step to help the citizens of Mississippi. The House has worked in a bipartisan way to change the law and that change will help shape the future of our state for generations to come,” said Public Services Commissioner Brandon Presley in a statement.

On the same day the Mississippi House passed its bill, six members of the Georgia House introduced HB 23. Georgia law specifies the precise businesses and activities in which electric cooperative may participate. The bill would expand that list to include, “"to provide and operate broadband services directly or indirectly through a contractual arrangement or through a broadband affiliate.”

The Georgia bill also includes provisions on financing, affiliation and cross-subsidization similar to the Mississippi bill. It also includes language to protect privacy by restricting cooperative use of consumer proprietary information.

Most recently, Oklahoma Senator James Leewright has indicated he will introduce SB 1002 on Feb. 4. The text of the bill is not yet available, but the summary states that it will be titled the “Facilitating Internet Broadband Rural Expansion Act” and it will establish “duties of certain cooperatives.”

Update, January 24: Yesterday the Mississippi Senate unanimously (52-0) passed HB 366, authorizing electric cooperatives to provide broadband.  Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, who has been a leading voice in favor of the bill, tweeted, “The bill now goes to Gov. [Phil] Bryant where he is expected to sign it quickly. The future of Rural Mississippi just got a lot brighter!”

Update, January 31: Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant yesterday signed HB 366 (pictured). The law went into effect immediately.

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