Gov. Eric Holcomb signed legislation that will allow fiber-to-home service to use private electric easements with existing above-ground infrastructure without reopening negotiations.
Indiana Electric Cooperatives estimated 250,000 private electric easements in the state would have required lengthy renegotiating with various partners and added five to 15 years to build out broadband service to rural areas.
"Because these electric easements originally didn't allow for telecom purposes, electric co-ops would have had to renegotiate every one of these easement agreements," said Scott Bowers, vice president of government relations at the statewide in Indianapolis.
"This is not the silver bullet of broadband deliverability but if we couldn't address this, the impediments [to co-op broadband] may have been too high," Bowers said, adding that co-ops still will have to consider cost and member demand before pursuing broadband.
The new law does not cover underground, modified or new infrastructure on existing easements.
A 2016 report by the Federal Communications Commission in 2016 found that 52 percent of Indiana's rural population lacked access to high-speed internet service.
Only a fraction of Indiana's 38 electric co-ops offer broadband, but Bowers said many are assessing the feasibility of offering the service to members.
Bowers praised state Sen. Eric Koch for introducing the bill and getting it to the governor's desk. Koch is in his first term as a senator, but long represented a co-op-rich district while serving in the state House of Representatives.
"His leadership, patience and persistence with the bill got it across the finish line," said Bowers. "He understands the importance of electric cooperatives and the role they play in communities."
Koch said he studied maps where Indiana residents were unserved or underserved and saw "immediately how service co-op territory maps overlapped with unserved areas. It was evident to me that co-ops would be a large part of the solution," he said.
He said he did not expect co-ops "to jump right into the broadband business," but said they can now form business partnerships to help serve their members.
"We have written the legislation flexible enough to give the co-ops many different options if they choose to make high-speed broadband available to members," Koch said. "With this bill, co-ops now have a forward path at much lower cost than if the easements had to be renegotiated."
Reps. David Ober and Matt Lehman were also instrumental in getting the legislation passed.