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A new Virginia law will help reduce delays and costs for electric cooperatives and other broadband providers to deploy internet in the state's rural communities.
The law, which takes effect July 1, clarifies that fiber-optic cable can be hung by electric co-ops in an existing electric easement, even beyond their service territories. This will end potentially costly renegotiation delays to rural broadband projects, co-op leaders said.
"Prior to this new law, there was almost no way for broadband service providers to use existing electric utility easements to connect unserved areas to the internet," said Andrew Vehorn, vice president of governmental affairs for the
Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives.
"Co-ops would have to get their own, separate easements for retail broadband. This can be a very expensive and time-consuming process and rural broadband deployment is expensive enough."
While it will simplify the process, Vehorn notes that the new law is "not a silver bullet" because it largely applies only to easements that can be apportioned for communications. Some easements in the state still specifically prohibit that from happening.
Virginia co-ops pursuing retail broadband welcomed the easement fix.
"The expansion of easements to allow the placement of communications facilities by right will benefit all electric cooperatives who plan to build fiber optic broadband networks," said Gary Wood, president and CEO of
Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, which is headquartered in Arrington.
"This change in the law facilitates the expansion of rural broadband within electric cooperative service territories. It also eases the extension of cooperative fiber optic networks to areas outside of the cooperative territory."
CVEC serves the most rural portions of 14 counties. Its broadband subsidiary, Firefly Fiber Broadband℠, is installing 3,600 miles of fiber. Like many co-op broadband subsidiaries, it plans to serve some areas outside of its membership to meet community needs and increase revenues.
"Adjacent areas often have a need for this essential service, and this law allows an electric cooperative to provide broadband benefits beyond its electric borders," said Wood.
In southeast Virginia,
Prince George Electric Cooperative says the new law will help it bring broadband with 1-gigabit speed to Surry County, which is in its electric service territory but lacks internet access.
The Waverly-based co-op is partnering with Dominion Energy to allow its subsidiary, RURALBAND, to hang fiber on the investor-owned utility's poles where necessary.
The new law states that providing communications services is in the public interest, and an electric co-op "can attach communications equipment, such as fiber, to utility poles and use existing easements to deliver broadband service throughout Virginia," said Casey Logan, president and CEO of PGEC.
"It is a very important bill for us," said Renee Chapline, PGEC senior vice president of community and member engagement. "It takes a lot of the unknowns out; it mitigates risk."
Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy and Sen. Lynwood Lewis, both Democrats, were chief sponsors of the legislation, which recently cleared both chambers and was approved by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam. Other states, including
Missouri and Tennessee, have passed similar legislation recently.
Vehorn attributed the victory to the statewide association's ability to build a diverse coalition that supports rural broadband. It included the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association (VCTA), the Sierra Club, Americans for Prosperity, the Farm Bureau, and the Virginia Agribusiness Council.
"VCTA represents for-profit cable and broadband providers and, while we have traditionally disagreed on pole attachment policy, we found common ground here," he said.
The Sierra Club recognized that large-scale expansion of renewables requires broadband infrastructure.
"Working in common with the agriculture groups, they recognize that to reduce farm runoff and keep Virginia's rivers and the Chesapeake Bay cleaner, precision agriculture also requires broadband infrastructure," Vehorn said.
Americans for Prosperity wants increased access to telehealth and telemedicine, which would require an expanded broadband infrastructure, he said.
"Broadband is no longer a luxury and this diverse coalition shows how necessary it is to virtually every facet of modern life," said Vehorn.