Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Lawmakers start over on rural internet legislation

by BIZ Magazine

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

Louisiana legislators on Wednesday started over on an effort to encourage high-speed internet access in rural areas.

Sen. Beth Mizell, who authored a bill with the same goal that lawmakers approved during the regular session, said Gov. John Bel Edwards intends to veto that measure because it could lead to lawsuits against the state.

The Federal Communications Commission has established the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to distribute $20.4 billion over 10 years to places with limited or no broadband access, and state officials hope to bring some of that money to Louisiana. Senate Bill 406 allowed rural electricity co-ops to partner with broadband providers and use their existing infrastructure to deliver internet service.

But a provision added to Senate Bill 406 limited its scope to areas that are entirely unserved by broadband. That restriction of competition violates the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and could lead to litigation, according to Association of Louisiana Electric Cooperatives CEO Jeff Arnold

Senate Bill 10 of the current special session includes the main provisions of Senate Bill 406 but allows co-ops to get into the internet business in areas currently both served and unserved. That change allows the state’s co-ops to get on board, Arnold said.

“Ingredients get thrown in the sausage as we’re making it,” he said, referring to the legislative process. “This wasn’t Best Stop boudin when it came out. It might have been the corner store boudin. Sometimes it’s good, but not as good as Best Stop.”

Sausage-making metaphors aside, the new legislation still faces opposition. Cheryl McCormick, CEO of the Louisiana Internet and Television Association, said the legislation should remain focused on unserved areas since that’s the intent of the federal program. She also said a reporting provision in the bill, which Mizell said is meant to identify unserved areas, “raises severe antitrust considerations” by asking for specific information some companies would prefer not be made public.

AT&T and the Louisiana Farm Bureau also turned in red cards indicating opposition but did not testify Wednesday.

“The Governor met with Senator Mizell and expressed his concerns with SB 406 as it was finally passed,” Edwards spokeswoman Christina Stephens said by email. “She worked with us on the language that was adopted in committee today and the governor is fully supportive of the approach she is taking.”

The special session began right after the regular session ended June 1 and may last until the end of the month.

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