The big telcos have been successful over the years in squashing competition. When there’s been an opportunity, they’ve marshalled through legislation to block local governments and cooperatives from entering the broadband business. There is no better way to protect legacy revenues than by legally barring those entities that might decide to compete by building better broadband.
A number of states have laws that ban electric cooperatives from offering broadband. It amazes me how such laws came into place. Some legislator wrote and got enough votes to enact a law that tells customer-owned companies that they can’t put fiber on the poles and the rights-of-ways that they already own. I find it hard to believe that politicians would directly oppose the rural citizens who own cooperatives. The only explanation for such laws is the lobbying and donations made to politicians by the big telcos.
If you’ve never looked at the locations of electric cooperatives, most are extremely rural – they were created to build bring electricity to the places where no commercial electric company would make the investment in infrastructure. It’s not a coincidence that these are the same rural areas where the big telcos stopped making investments decades ago, and these are the many of the same rural places with poor or nonexistent broadband.
The tide is turning, and a number of states are reversing these laws to enable electric cooperatives to get into the broadband business. Last June the state of Indiana passed the Facilitating Internet Broadband Rural Expansion (FIBRE) Act that enables electric cooperatives to build and operate fiber networks. Since that act, several Indiana Cooperatives such as Jackson County Rural Electric Membership Corporation, South Central Indiana REMC, and Orange County REMC have decided to deploy fiber networks to reach rural customers. A number of other cooperatives are considering broadband deployment.
In January of this year the legislature in Mississippi unanimously approved the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act that allows the 25 electric cooperatives in the state to build broadband networks.
In Texas, Senator Robert Nichols introduced SB 14, legislation modeled after Indiana’s FIBRE Act to enable the electric cooperatives in the state to provide broadband.
It’s clear to me why the tide has turned in favor of electric cooperatives and municipalities building fiber networks. In the numerous rural counties I have visited in the last year the local politicians have been telling me that lack of broadband is the number one issue in their jurisdiction. Homeowners without broadband are demanding that local politicians find a broadband solution. Members of rural electric cooperatives are begging their Boards to build fiber.
I think it’s starting to dawn on many rural communities that nobody has plans to bring them broadband. I’ve talked to numerous rural households and farmers in the last year who describe the agony of raising school kids in a home with no broadband or in operating a farm that’s at an automatic disadvantage to farms that have broadband. Rural communities are starting to realize that they must find their own broadband solution.
It’s easy to draw a parallel between what’s happening today and what happened a century ago when these same rural areas figured out a way to bring electricity to their communities. They looked then in envy at the towns with electricity in the same way that rural residents today can see broadband just out of their grasp.
We recently conducted a survey for a rural electric cooperative where every respondent to the survey was in favor of bringing fiber – even those households who didn’t own a computer or want broadband in their own homes. I’ve never before seen a survey where everybody supported fiber broadband.
These laws are passing because rural residents are fed up with the inaction of the big telcos. It’s just as extraordinary to see the Mississippi law passed unanimously to oppose the big telcos as it is to see every resident of a community support broadband. The tide has definitely turned.