Broadband expansion remains a difficult issue

As time to pass legislation to spark the expansion of broadband comes to a close, Farm Bureau staff has identified key factors that are critical for any legislation:

  • “Unserved” areas, i.e. “the last mile,” must be the priority.
  • Solutions must include all potential partners.
  • Easement acquisition needs to be addressed.
  • Changes to property law must be fair to landowners and not overly broad.
  • Changes in technology must be considered.

Farm Bureau is active on two very different broadband-related bills. HB1626 passed the House on a unanimous vote and has now been assigned to the Senate Utilities Committee. The bill, which is supported by Farm Bureau, authorizes a comprehensive study to help Indiana understand the conditions that limit broadband expansion into rural Indiana, said Justin Schneider, INFB director of state government relations.

It is contrasted with SB478, an REMC-supported bill that easily passed the Senate on a 48-2 vote under the premise that it would deliver broadband to rural Indiana. However, the bill neglects to consider the principles needed to actually deliver broadband to the last mile, Schneider said. SB 478 creates a new process to convert existing electric easements that were negotiated with landowners into a communications easement.

INFB has been working all session to address concerns created by SB 478. The version of the bill that left the Senate:

  • Does not require that broadband service is offered to landowners.
  • Does not limit installation of fiber on existing poles as claimed. Instead it allows all facilities and equipment used to provide service which could include large on-ground connection boxes or new poles or towers with wireless connected service. It also does not restrict underground installation.
  • Ignores basic principles of contract law.
  • Creates an alternative to the use of eminent domain for the public use of private property and puts the burden on the landowner to initiate legal proceedings.
  • Restricts the ability of a landowner to claim any value for the use of their property.
  • Prohibits any financial compensation for damages to a landowner who consents to the installation.
  • Requires a landowner to hire an appraiser and bring a cause of action in court to recover any damages, including for physical damage to property during installation.
SB 478 deals with privately negotiated easements and not public rights-of-way, Schneider noted, and Farm Bureau’s belief, based upon a review of state and federal laws and the Indiana Constitution, is that a landowner must consent to the change of the easement. That position is supported by outside counsel who also believes that this change will be subject to legal challenge if this law were to pass.