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Missouri bill would help boost broadband

This raised-in-the-country girl is eager for summer—not just to see warmer weather arrive but also because our family’s new house should be finished. We are building our dream home on 75 acres in rural Callaway County, Mo. It’s a peaceful, picturesque site surrounded by woods and overlooking a pond.

In today’s technology-driven world, however, we still want our country life to include connectivity. That’s why I was thrilled to learn that we have not one, but two options for high-speed, fiber-optic internet service—even in the sticks—thanks to the efforts of local cooperatives. Both Callaway Electric Cooperative and Kingdom Telephone Company offer service that’s as good or better than what we can get now in our suburban Jefferson City neighborhood.

Until recently, however, there weren’t many rural options for high-speed internet. That’s why cooperatives have entered the broadband market, true to their grassroots mission of serving their members. They’re building these networks the same way they brought electricity and phone service to the countryside in the 1930s, when private utility companies refused. Investors did not believe farms and rural towns had sufficient demand and focused on urban areas instead. The same thing is happening with internet service.

But a federal trial court decision threatens that trend. Sho-Me Power Electric Cooperative, a member-owned transmission co-op in Marshfield, Mo., and its subsidiary, Sho-Me Technologies, have been involved in a class-action lawsuit related to rural broadband since 2010. The plaintiffs are landowners who allege that using existing utility networks to install fiber-optic cable constitutes trespassing because the original easements were granted for electricity only.

In August 2017, a Missouri federal court jury ruled in favor of the landowners and rendered verdicts of more than $130 million in damages. Paying that amount would effectively end Sho-Me’s fiber-optic offerings and make other cooperatives seriously consider the risk. The verdicts are still pending as the case is retried.

In the meantime, Missouri electric cooperatives, Missouri Farm Bureau and state agricultural groups are backing legislation that would help avoid such lawsuits in the future. The “Broadband Accessibility Bill” would legalize the practice of placing fiber in easements originally granted for electric lines and affirm the role of electric co-ops in this effort.

Caleb Jones, vice president of the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives, said the bill’s language has been crafted to solidify state support for rural broadband accessibility without hindering landowner rights. Although not a “cure-all,” he said this legislation would allow cooperatives and private companies to continue expanding high-speed internet in under-served or unserved areas.

Missouri is following the lead of neighboring Tennessee, which in 2017 clarified its laws to allow electric cooperatives to offer internet service. Indiana also recently enacted legislation that allows co-ops with easements for electric lines to use those same easements for fiber-optic cable.

Legalities aside, I believe cooperatives are doing the right thing by getting into broadband, and it makes sense to use their current infrastructure to do so. These not-for-profit businesses are providing members with a much-needed service. That’s what co-ops are all about. As I finished this column, my husband was happily signing easements to allow Callaway Electric to provide fiber-optic service to our new house. His work-from-home job depends on high-speed internet, our kids’ education will benefit from it and, honestly, the whole family will enjoy it.

This month’s TF cover story on precision agriculture also underscores the need for reliable connectivity for our farmers and agribusinesses. They need high-speed internet to remain competitive in an increasingly technology-reliant field. But 61 percent of rural Missouri lacks broadband service, according to the Missouri Broadband Initiative Workgroup.

In March, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens introduced a “Rural Growth Plan,” calling on the state to spend $45 million to bring broadband to rural homes and businesses. High-speed internet expansion is also a key initiative of the Missouri Department of Agriculture’s “MORE” campaign.

Our state isn’t alone. In 2017, at least 22 states introduced bills or resolutions related to rural broadband. President Trump has even made rural infrastructure a priority.

At press time, the Broadband Accessibility Bill, HB 1880, had passed in the Missouri House by a vote of 149 to 1. The Senate version, SB 820, had been debated and would soon be up for a vote. As this legislation and other broadband initiatives are considered, contact your elected officials and ask for their support. In this digital age, access to high-speed internet is necessary for growth in almost any industry—especially agriculture.

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