Oregon’s electric co-ops support a bipartisan bill (HB 2654) that is one of the best steps Oregon lawmakers can take to deploy rural broadband—without spending a single penny.

By Ted Case

Sens. Lynn Findlay (R Vale), left, and Lee Beyer (D-Springfield) are chief sponsors of broadband easement legislation. Photo by Lynn Howlett

Among the many lessons learned from the pandemic of 2020, one remains irrefutable: Expanding the ability to work remotely, learn online and conduct health care with telemedicine is critical for the Oregon economy in 2021 and beyond.

The pandemic has revealed a political lesson as well. In highly partisan times, one policy issue has brought together political leaders from all ideological stripes, and that is the importance of bridging the digital divide.

Oregon’s electric cooperatives, which serve in many areas where a broadband gap exists, offer some of the best prospective solutions for broadband in rural and frontier parts of the state. In fact, the very model that successfully brought electricity to rural America in the 1930s and ’40s is bringing broadband to rural America in the 21st century.

But more work needs to be done. The Oregon Broadband Advisory Council has reported several hundred thousand Oregonians lack access to broadband and has recommended the Oregon Legislature address barriers to broadband deployment.

Oregon’s electric co-ops in the broadband business and those exploring the opportunity have identified a significant barrier: getting access across land to deploy fiber.

Electric cooperatives in some states have faced class-action lawsuits because the state easement law did not contemplate the modern system requirements for the provision of electric and broadband internet services. This threat of litigation serves as a barrier to a cooperative’s ability to provide broadband internet services.

For instance, Coos-Curry Electric Co-op (CCEC) recently launched Beacon Broadband to reach consumers along Oregon’s south coast. However, Coos-Curry Electric’s legacy power line easements do not include communication infrastructure.

“If we have to update all of our easements to construct our fiber broadband network, it will take thousands of man-hours and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said CCEC CEO Brent Bischoff. Legislation supported by the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association provides a careful balance of expanding broadband while protecting landowner rights.

HB 2654—sponsored by Reps. David Brock Smith and Pam Marsh, and Sens. Lee Beyer and Lynn Findley—streamlines the easement process and codifies the damages for any judgment against an electric utility from litigation over an expanded use of an easement is based on fair market value.

Peak Internet crews expand coverage in east Linn County. Photo courtesy of Peak Internet

Additionally, the legislation upholds landowner rights by preserving a plaintiff’s day in court and their right to be justly compensated.

“HB 2654 will prevent the tremendous expense that threatens our ability to make fiber broadband available to 100% of our rural co-op members,” Bischoff said. “I can’t thank Rep. Brock Smith, Rep. Marsh, and all the sponsors enough for their support of this crucial bill.”

Brock Smith and Marsh have previously worked closely on broadband legislation in the House with the goal, as Marsh notes, of “ensuring all Oregonians have access to the technology that is central to so many aspects of our lives.”

The bill also has strong bipartisan backing in the Senate with Sens. Beyer and Findlay. Both lawmakers are familiar with the electric utility industry. Beyer chairs the Energy and Environment Committee. Findlay serves as his co-chair, representing a massive Eastern Oregon district where broadband is a major issue.

Beyer’s west Oregon district includes portions of Consumers Power Inc., which is building out fiber optics in parts of its vast service through Peak Internet. The first area to receive high-speed internet will be east Linn County, outside of Lebanon and Sweet Home.

“This legislation will help streamline the process and get broadband to places that never dreamed of having it,” said CPI CEO Roman Gillen. “I commend the sponsors of HB 2654 for their leadership. This is one of the most important steps the legislature can take to deploy broadband.”

Similar legislation to streamline the easement process has already passed state legislatures in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, and Pennsylvania, among others.