The legislature is working on a bill that would make it easier for electric cooperatives to bring broadband to their customers and maybe beyond by allowing them to use existing easements – and rather than gather opt-in permission door to door to use easements for broadband, they could use the opt-out method by announcing it to customers in their newsletters with a deadline for customers to voice concerns. Thanks to MREA (MN Rural Electric Association) for sharing a recent article from a recent report with more details…
MINNESOTA’S ELECTRIC COOPERATIVES CAN BE A GREAT PARTNER IN BRIDGING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE – BUT ONLY WITH A CHANGE IN STATE STATUTE
By Joyce Peppin, director, government affairs & general counsel
The COVID-19 pandemic has created many challenges in the past year, including forcing school districts and business owners to figure out how to conduct operations on virtual platforms. That problem is exasperated in rural areas of the state that don’t have access to high-speed internet. Surprisingly, even a full year after the onset of the pandemic, 440,000 Minnesotans still do not have access to a wired broadband connection with speeds of 25 Mbps or faster, and another 125,000 do not have any wired internet providers with services available at their place of residence, according to the organization BroadbandNow.
Electric cooperatives could be a big part of the solution to bridge the digital divide – the technological gap between those with access to up-to-date technologies and those without access. Electric co-ops are located throughout Minnesota, and unlike any other for-profit business or governmental entity, they already have the infrastructure in place. They are uniquely positioned to bring broadband to corners of the state that are currently not served or underserved, but there is a legal challenge that must be addressed first.
The problem is that for an electric co-op to deploy broadband (or partner with a telecommunications company to deploy broadband), they must first get a new signed easement agreement from every landowner that gives the co-op express permission to use the easement for broadband purposes. However, obtaining new easements is an extremely time-intensive and expensive task.
To address this legal change, MREA worked with state legislators to draft HF 686/SF 1304. This bill would allow co-ops to use their current easements for deploying broadband, so long as they give easement holders six months notice in a bill insert or via first-class mail and recognize a landowner’s right to commence legal action or seek damages for a fair market decrease in property value. If the bill passes, co-ops would have more legal certainty that they would prevail in a lawsuit against trespass claims by landowner rights’ groups and would be more likely to help bring high-speed internet to the unserved or underserved.
While not every co-op will participate in deploying broadband, the passage of this bill will provide the state with another tool in the toolbox to bridge the digital divide. Please contact your legislators and ask them to support HF 686/SF 1304!