by Jessica Denson
Director of Communications, Connected Nation
Bowling Green, KY (May 2, 2019) – Federal legislators have taken action in recent months to begin expansion of rural broadband across the U.S. But, many state lawmakers are not waiting for federal funding to come through before taking steps of their own.
The number of states passing or introducing bills to support the expansion of rural broadband access, adoption, and use has been steadily rising and, as we entered 2019, exploded. Each state may approach the problem a little differently but there’s no denying that forward-thinking lawmakers are aware they can no longer wait.
States are Getting Creative
One of the most recent pieces of legislation was signed into law just this last Friday in Georgia. Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA) signed Senate Bill 2 which allows regional Electric Membership Cooperatives to provide internet services.
State Sen. Steve Gooch (R-Dist. 51) lead the push for SB2 and two other broadband expansion bills for rural Georgia. He spoke with the Dawson County News about the importance of fiber optic cables— technology that can increase internet speeds.
“Everything in your house is becoming electronic, but none of that’s going to work without some way to carry that message,” Gooch told the publication. “This [fiber optic cable] is as important in the next 100 years, and in my opinion, will do more for our economy and the county than the Interstate system did when Eisenhower built it.”
The bill was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and “is seen as being a critical first step” in getting high-speed internet (broadband) to rural Georgia families, businesses, farmers, and communities.
Meanwhile, Minnesota officials have been working since 2014 to make major changes and increase access to more people. The state appropriated $85 million over four years to local internet providers through the Border-to-Borer Broadband Development Grant Program.
According to Nancy Hoffman of the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition the program has “helped the state reach an admirable 91 percent penetration rate toward the universal access goal, and has become a national model that other states are using to make sure they aren’t left behind.”
But the program hit a snag in 2018 when the former governor vetoed funding. Now, the state is back on track to finish what it started. Gov. Tim Walz (D-MN) has recommended $35 million in rural broadband investment every year for the next two years. The Minnesota House agreed with the funding needed. However, the Senate is looking at appropriating less than half that with a one-time investment of $30 million.
In Alabama, members of the state Senate are discussing legislation that would establish a grant program for broadband accessibility. State Sen. Clay Scofield (R-Dist. 1) is sponsoring SB 90 which not only would set up a grant program but seeks to define what is an “unserved area.” A similar bill is also under consideration in the House.
The Alabama Rural Broadband Coalition (ARBC) held a press conference yesterday to support HB 400. State Rep. Randall Shedd’s (R-Fairview) is expected to bring the bill to the House floor later today. It would allow electric providers to offer broadband services using electric easements for advanced communications capabilities.
“We believe having a reliable internet connection is not only a basic personal necessity in today’s society, but high speed broadband access in rural Alabama could bring an array of benefits related to education, telemedicine, economic development and agriculture,” the organization said in a statement.
According to wrbl.com, lawmakers say the two broadband bills address the “unfairness faced by many rural citizens and small businesses that do not have reliable high-speed Internet access.”
But There’s More…
Just last month in South Carolina, the state House passed a bill to expand high-speed internet access in rural areas. House Bill 3780 would provide funding to lower-income counties for broadband expansion.
The bill establishes the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) Program. More than a half million South Carolinians are being left out of the digital economy due to lagging rural broadband access, according to the latest federal data.
Earlier this year, in March, Vermont lawmakers approved a bill nearly unanimously to expand broadband across the state. House Bill 513 aims to support community-led broadband expansion through state-funded grants and loans totally $10.8 million. The
“In looking at model that worked around the state, what our committee did was essentially put together a bill that would empower communities,” Tim Briglin, the chairman of the Vermont House Energy and Technology Committee, said according to statescoop. “It would put the ability of the state to better help communities to solve their broadband issue both in the form of funding, in the form of planning, and essentially in the form of advice.”
In Mississippi, lawmakers are hoping they can solve “their broadband issue” by working with electric cooperatives. In January, they passed the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act. According to the Jackson Free Press, “it permits Mississippi’s 25 electric cooperatives, also known as ECMs, to offer high-speed service to their rural customers—many of whom currently lack access to broadband internet.”
However, since then, concerns have been raised by state leaders about this approach. Some are citing the cost to these cooperatives as prohibitive and noting that many residents and businesses won’t likely see broadband access for what could be as long as 10 years. What will happen next is still not clear.
The bottom line is there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to the approach of bringing broadband access to all people, but it’s clear that state leaders are trying to create positive, proactive change for their constituents.
Connected Nation applauds their efforts because to do nothing means millions of Americans will continue to fall further and further behind and be left out of the opportunities and resources that can help our rural families and communities thrive.
UPDATE: List of State Funding Rural Broadband Gets Even Longer – May 14, 2019
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