EEI survey: Electric companies should help bolster broadband infrastructure

Published on July 23, 2021 by Kim Riley

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Registered American voters overwhelmingly support electric companies making investments in broadband infrastructure to improve internet access and speeds, according to a just-released survey from the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), which represents the nation’s investor-owned electric utilities.

“The survey confirmed a lot of things that we suspected, such as how essential the internet is for their ability to work, for school and for everything else they want to do. Basically, people answered that it’s fundamental. So that wasn’t a surprise,” Brad Viator, EEI’s vice president of external affairs, told Daily Energy Insider on Friday in an interview. 

Specifically, the survey of 1,986 registered voters found that nine in 10 think that having access to internet services is essential to their work (91 percent), school (91 percent), and home (94 percent). 

What EEI was somewhat surprised about regarding the survey results was how strong support was for electric companies to make investments in broadband systems, particularly for those in unserved and underserved areas of the country, Viator said. 

According to EEI’s data, the majority of surveyed voters (76 percent overall) across all age groups said they support such broadband infrastructure investments being made by their local power companies, with the highest number (86 percent) among those aged 35-44 years. Eighty-one percent of voters aged 18-34 years agreed, as did 73 percent of those aged 45-64 and 74 percent of people aged 65 years and older.

“That was a little bit surprising to us,” said Viator. “We thought that that was going to be in the domain of cable companies and telecom companies. But people think that electric companies have the expertise and wherewithal to go out and finally bridge this digital divide that’s only getting worse.”

And to make such investments, seven in 10 surveyed voters said they support their local electric provider having access to federal and state broadband grant programs. “This sentiment is bipartisan, with support from a majority of Democrats (79 percent), Republicans (65 percent), and Independents (64 percent),” according to the survey.

Viator thinks that the broadband infrastructure investments being made by investor-owned utilities (IOUs) “will only get bigger.”

At the same time, there are a lot of available federal funds to help companies continue improving and expanding broadband infrastructure, he said, adding that IOUs hope to leverage their existing assets to be part of the solution.

“The federal government is pouring gasoline on these funding mechanisms and allocating more cash to funding programs at the FCC, USDA, and the Commerce Department,” said Viator, who also noted that there’s a full-government approach underway to expand broadband services to unserved and underserved communities. 

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates that there are nearly 21 million Americans who do not have access to high-speed internet, and as regulated service providers, electric companies are considered well-positioned to help close the digital divide. By leveraging their existing infrastructure, electric companies can provide broadband “middle mile” networks linking major carriers to last mile providers, such as internet service providers, according to EEI.

The survey data results will be used to help inform EEI’s efforts at both the state and federal levels to push for law adjustments that allow for the utilization of electric easements and rights-of-way for telecom purposes in addition to electric purposes, Viator said. Such efforts have already been successful in five states — Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, West Virginia, and Vermont — that have made such adjustments to state laws. 

“We’ve been focusing attention on adjusting state laws so that this resource can be unlocked,” Viator said, “and the IOUs in those states are out there making investments and bringing internet services to communities around the country.”

The survey was conducted online between April 21-25. The survey data were weighted to approximate a target sample of registered voters based on gender, educational attainment, age, race, and religion, according to EEI.