Bills in General Assembly may remove barriers to broadband expansion

Published 6:01 pm Monday, April 29, 2019

In the early-to-mid 1900s, providing access to electricity in rural areas in North Carolina presented a tremendous challenge. In response to this challenge, electric membership cooperatives, founded and owned by rural members, were created to bring that power to the people.

Today, in the 21st century, broadband internet is comparable to electricity in the 20th, and a pair of bills advancing in the North Carolina General Assembly, H.B. 378 and S.B. 310, would give electrical co-ops and internet providers new opportunities to expand services into rural areas.

“If the General Assembly’s works are successful, it might make it easier for an existing entity like Tricounty to partner with Tideland Electric for the use of any existing rights-of-way or electric distribution poles we have so they can further their business enterprise and expand their broadband footprint.”

Spruil said that Tideland would welcome expanded broadband service in all six counties it serves, especially in mainland Hyde County, parts of Beaufort County and Pamlico County that have a lack of alternatives.

According to Greg Coltrain, vice president of business of business development for Tricounty/River Street Networks, expanding broadband in the area is a priority, and being able to more closely partner with Tideland would help further that goal.

“Today, electric cooperative fiber assets are restricted only for them to use for their own communication purposes inside their own business operations,” Coltrain said. “The EMCs haven’t been able to serve up those assets to a private partner so it doesn’t cost as much to get into those areas. That hasn’t been available under the current legislation.”

Under H.B. 378 and S.B. 310, the restrictions currently set on what EMCs can do to offer broadband service would be lifted, and both Tideland and Tricounty/River Street would be open to using that new leeway to expand services, according to the respective executives of both companies.

“If you think about it, that’s what electric coops and telephone coops were chartered to do when we didn’t have power and phone services in these rural areas,” Coltrain said. “So it makes a lot of sense if power companies could be given the freedom to use some of the assets they have to partner with companies who want to do broadband in areas that are unserved or underserved.”

For both of Beaufort County’s legislators in the N.C. General assembly, Representative Rep. Keith Kidwell (R-Chocowinity) and Senator Erica Smith (D-Henrico), the issue is one they both can agree on. Both legislators are sponsors of the respective bills in the N.C. House and the N.C. Senate.

“Broadband has become almost as necessary as electricity and water in most regards, so it’s going to be a situation where we have to get it out into those (underserved) areas,” Kidwell said. “The best way to do that is with people who have experience with serving those areas through the electric co-ops. They understand how to service these rural areas better than anybody.”

Kidwell said that Belhaven and Aurora were prime examples of communities that could be better served through partnerships made possible through the legislation. He went on to say that allowing new competition in the broadband industry could have the net effect of both expanding services and lowering prices to the consumer.

Attempts to reach Smith for comment were not returned as of press time.