Newly introduced state broadband bills gain support of electric companies

Published on January 31, 2022 by Kim Riley

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Several investor-owned utilities support recently introduced broadband bills under consideration in the state legislatures of Iowa, Missouri, and New Mexico that would expand access while helping to ramp up internet speeds.

With the growing importance of increasing access to broadband and making it universally available, policymakers are looking to electric companies to help bridge the gap, according to the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the association representing all of America’s investor-owned utilities.

In its 2021 report, Middle Mile Broadband: Electric Companies Are Critical To Closing the Digital Divide, EEI says that electric companies can leverage their existing infrastructure to provide broadband “middle mile” networks that link major carriers to last-mile providers, such as internet service providers (ISPs) and anchor institutions.

“Allowing electric companies to provide the middle mile broadband infrastructure is a win-win for all stakeholders, particularly the residents of underserved and unserved areas,” according to EEI.

In fact, EEI thinks that policymakers can help people living in underserved and unserved areas gain access to reliable, cost-effective broadband by ensuring that electric companies are eligible and incentivized to participate in state and federal broadband grant programs, among other suggestions EEI makes in its report.

In several states, lawmakers appear to agree and have offered like-minded legislative proposals.

Current law in Iowa, for example, authorizes communication service providers to apply for broadband grants through the Empower Rural Iowa program. The proposed Iowa Senate Study Bill 3034, introduced on Jan. 14 by State Republican Sen. Jason Schultz, chairman of the Iowa Commerce Committee, would allow a public utility or its affiliate to apply for an Empower Rural Iowa grant with communications service providers supporting their broadband project costs.  

“We‘re supportive of the legislation and the many benefits it will provide our customers and the communities we serve,” Ted Stopulos, Alliant Energy’s public affairs manager in Iowa, told Daily Energy Insider. “Simply put, this legislation is all about partnerships and building out broadband in rural Iowa.”

If enacted, the bill specifically would allow public utilities, such as Alliant Energy, to co-apply with ISPs for state broadband grants for projects designed to use the infrastructure that’s owned and operated by the utility. “In other words, the middle-mile,” said Stopulos. 

Iowa Senate Study Bill 3034 would help eradicate the digital divide in Iowa, he added, “which is especially prevalent in less densely populated rural areas and among financially disadvantaged customers and communities.”

Alliant Energy, which serves almost 950,000 electric and 410,000 natural gas customers in Iowa and Wisconsin, is well-positioned to partner with ISPs toward solving this ongoing challenge, Stopulos said. 

“We have an existing core fiber ring that connects our energy network and helps optimize our system for our customers,” he said. “This puts us in the perfect position to partner with ISPs on the middle-mile front of broadband to make the internet more accessible in hard-to-reach communities.”

The grants proposed under Schultz’s bill “could help tip the scale for the 75 percent of our customers who lack access to reliable and affordable broadband service,” said Stopulos, “and we all know that affordable and reliable internet access is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”

Schultz has said publicly that funding isn’t the only solution to expanding broadband access. He thinks providers want state policymakers to come up with more far-reaching, forward-looking plans that could also help protect their long-term investments. Toward that goal, he said that the Commerce Committee’s role is “to level the playing field and get out of the way” so that companies can move forward with their broadband plans.

His Iowa Senate Study Bill 3034 is currently under consideration in an Iowa Senate Commerce subcommittee.


There’s a similar bill under consideration in the Show Me State, where Missouri State Sen. Jason Bean (R-Holcomb) in January sponsored Missouri Senate Bill (SB) 848, the Electrical Corporation Broadband Authorization Act, which would allow an electric company to use its broadband infrastructure to provide certain broadband infrastructure services.

That’s good news for St. Louis-based Ameren Missouri, which serves 1.28 million electric and 132,000 natural gas customers in central and eastern Missouri, a state that lags behind other states in broadband access with one in six Missourians being underserved, according to Warren Wood, vice president of regulatory and legislative affairs for Ameren Missouri. 

“That’s why Ameren Missouri developed a plan to bridge this critical digital divide by utilizing its existing infrastructure to support new smart technology and the needs of customers and growing communities,” Wood told Daily Energy Insider.

For instance, Ameren Missouri suggested during an August 2021 hearing held by the state House Interim Committee on Broadband Development that lawmakers allow the company to lease its unused fiber infrastructure to other providers so that more customers could be served, more money could be saved, and other providers would be able to use existing infrastructure without more construction.

“An expansive fiber communications network is vital to maintain a reliable, resilient and secure energy system for all Missourians,” Wood said, “and gives high-speed internet providers the ability to partner with Ameren to serve nearly 192,000 underserved Missouri small business owners, farmers and families working and learning from home.”

If enacted, Missouri SB 848 would modify the definition of ‘electric plant’ to include broadband infrastructure operated, controlled, owned, used or to be used for, or in connection with, or to facilitate the generation, transmission, or distribution of electricity or broadband infrastructure services, according to its text. 

The proposed bill also would include an electrical corporation’s investment in such broadband infrastructure to “be included in the electrical corporation’s rate base used to set the revenue requirement upon which the electrical corporation’s base rates are set,” the text says.

Equally important under the bill, the Missouri Public Service Commission would not have jurisdiction over the terms, conditions, charges, contracts, leases, licenses, or other agreements of an electrical corporation for its broadband operations or the provision of broadband services through a broadband services provider.

SB 848 is under consideration by the state Senate Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and the Environment Committee.

New Mexico

The Utility Easements for Broadband Act, SB 42, is another broadband-enabling bill sponsored in the New Mexico Legislature on Jan. 18 by State Sen. Michael Padilla (D-Albuquerque).

“Legislation would continue to modernize our Telecom Act and the utilization of electric utility lines for Broadband transmission,” Padilla tweeted on Jan. 19.

If enacted, SB 42 would allow electric companies to use utility easements or rights-of-way to build communications infrastructure. 

The bill is supported by PNM, the state’s largest power company serving more than 530,000 customers and a subsidiary of PNM Resources, an energy holding company also headquartered in Albuquerque.

“This legislation could help all New Mexicans in rural/outlying areas gain necessary broadband access, not just PNM customers,” Eric Chavez, spokesman for PNM Corporate Communications, told Daily Energy Insider.

As a long-time local energy provider, PNM understands “that digital equity and access is a key driver in community health and resilience,” Chavez explained. “The need for broadband expansion throughout the state is unquestionable.”

SB 42 could help expand broadband, connect students and teachers with education, expand economic development and technology opportunities, greatly improve much-needed telehealth services, and support public safety and security, said Chavez. 

“SB 42 would partner energy companies with communications providers to connect every corner of our state with broadband, cost-effectively,” he added. “Our state and our communities need a robust broadband market (with multiple carriers) to support affordable internet service for all.”

If passed, Chavez said that SB 42 could help mitigate many of the existing accessibility challenges faced by communities across New Mexico.

“We’re going on year three of the pandemic,” he said. “We are deeply dependent upon remote capabilities and technologies to support our kids’ futures and educational goals. We need expanded broadband access to help our most vulnerable and rural communities. Broadband is a great tool and equalizer as it connects people, doctors, teachers, family, and employers.”

To date, a committee recommendation has been announced by the New Mexico House of Representatives on SB 42, but the report has not yet been formally adopted by the body.