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Governor receives broadband expansion bill, vital to rural areas

Kentuckians residing in underserved, rural areas of the state could soon be on the receiving end of a massive expansion of broadband internet service, should Governor Andy Beshear sign House Bill 315 which passed on March 31.

The bill – sponsored by Rep. Brandon Reed of Hodgenville – will simplify the process by which electric co-operatives could build out a network by removing the need for a certificate of public need and necessity, which is overseen by the Public Service Commission.

Under the bill, economic feasibility studies would be required, and no electric co-op member would be forced to subscribe to broadband service in order to receive electricity.

“HB315 passed the House 92-0 and the Senate 35-1, so I feel confident the governor will sign it into law,” said Judge/Executive Johnny “Chic” Roberts. “The bill has an emergency clause, so it would go into effect as soon as the governor signs it.”

Roberts said the need for reliable internet access has long moved from a luxury to a necessity.

“The pandemic highlighted just how important access is in our society,” he said. “It is becoming more and more common for school, work, commerce, and even health care. We’ve long known how important access is for recruiting industry and business, but we tend to conduct our lives online in many ways.”

Roberts aid he is grateful for the work Comcast and TDS have put into improving reliability and access in Hawesville and Lewisport, but he also believes the rural areas of the county are just as important.

“We have home-based businesses who are somewhat left out of online commerce, and broadband access will open up new opportunities for those people,” Roberts said. “Our Fiscal Court and other rural leaders have spent a lot of time over the years working on this type of solution. We’ve been on the phone quite a bit to promote this bill, and I am encouraged that it has passed.”

The bill also establishes the Office of Broadband Development, which would serve as the central planning and coordinating organization, and administrator of the Broadband Deployment Fund and newly-established Rural Infrastructure Improvement Fund. HB1, the Executive Branch Budget, provides $1.1 million in each of the two years of the biennial budget to establish the office.

The Broadband Deployment Fund appropriates $250 million from the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund and the State Fiscal Recovery Fund.

The bill appropriates $20 million in Fiscal Year 2023 from the American Rescue Plan Act for the Rural Rural Infrastructure Improvement Fund. Eligible recipients would see the lesser of $5,000 for each pole replacement, or 50 percent of the total for pole replacement costs.

As well, the bill redefines unserved and underserved areas, and prioritizes projects in the order of: no service, unserved, and underserved. The bill also sets funding levels for projects based upon served locations per route mile.

House Bills 320 and 382 were passed in 2021, allocating $300 million for residential and economic development project broadband projects. HB 315 seeks to removes PSC regulation on broadband for rural electric co-ops, an agency the co-ops typically go before concerning rate hikes and acquisitions/sales.

Kenergy filed in 2021 for a certificate of public convenience and necessity for the construction of a high-speed fiber network to meet its communications needs within its 14-county service area. As well, Kenergy requested from PSC that it be allowed to lease excess capacity in the system to Conexon Connect for provision of broadband service to unserved and underserved households and businesses.

A hearing was held on March 31, with the PSC requesting documentation from a manufacturer that it has stopped producing the communications equipment currently utilized by Kenergy, provide documentation that manufacturer has informed Kenergy it no longer provides technical assistance for the obsolete equipment, and documentation of legal agreements guaranteeing financial conditions between Kenergy and Conexon Connect.

Roberts said if HB 315 is signed, it would remove the need for the ongoing proceedings of Kenergy before the PSC.

“It looks like the bill becoming law would give Kenergy what they need to move forward with their stated intentions,” Roberts said. “They own the infrastructure to put the fiber on, which drastically reduces investment and work needed to bring such a network online. We remain optimistic.”

By C. Josh Givens

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