Broadband task force 020620

State Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, chaired the Legislature's Broadband High-Speed Internet Service Task Force on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. On her right is Jeff Arnold, who now heads the Association of Louisiana Electric Cooperatives, and on her right is Brandon Frey, secretary in charge of Louisiana Public Service Commission, which regulates utility companies.

It was the last meeting Thursday, but a task force looking at expanding high-speed internet to underserved areas of the state is considering how to craft legislation that would allow a broad array of incentives for private businesses and public agencies to apply for federal grant money.

The panel also was working off of a Mississippi bill signed into law Friday that allows that state’s 25 electric cooperatives to offer rural broadband internet to their 1.8 million customers.

Republican state Sen. Beth Mizell, who lives in rural Washington Parish near the town Franklinton, says she’s looking at a bill or resolution that is far wider than the one in Mississippi. She’d like to see a clear process for interested providers to seek grants from the Federal Communications Commission and help for the providers navigate the bureaucracy.

But she’s also not averse to using the new Mississippi law as a map down an alternative avenue toward extending high-speed internet into rural parts of the state. “If Mississippi can do it, my goodness, Louisiana should be able to do it,” Mizell said.

Sitting on either side of Mizell was Jeff Arnold, a former New Orleans legislator who now heads the Association of Louisiana Electric Cooperatives, and Brandon Frey, secretary in charge of Louisiana Public Service Commission, which regulates utility companies. The two are facing each other in district court over the powers co-op board members that began when one association, Claiborne Electric Cooperative, attempted to start selling internet service too.

Arnold said the PSC is interested in keeping the rates low and adding the infrastructure costs of building out internet service would increase the rates for buyers of electricity. But the details of how co-ops could also provide broadband is being talked about on a national level as well as in Louisiana board rooms.

Louisiana’s regulatory system creates some hurdles to extending internet service, but also benefits consumers by having five elected PSC commissioners oversee business decisions with an eye on keeping electricity rates as low as possible while still covering a utility’s costs, Arnold said. He added that he would oppose restricting the PSC's authority too much.

Mizell said that many of the issues to extending internet service – access to private property, for instance – already are addressed by using a co-op’s existing electricity lines. Frey pointed out that payment for attaching additional equipment to co-op lines could help lower costs.

Because privately owned utilities weren’t providing electricity in the sparsely populated rural areas, co-ops were formed in the 1930s. As Arnold put it, Entergy may have 140 customers per mile of line in urban areas. The co-ops may have four customers per mile of wire. Entergy, which is owned by shareholders, is allowed a profit of about 10%. The cooperatives are owned by the people they serve and must deliver power at cost.

The Federal Communications Commission last week approved the first phase of a $20.4 billion grant to deploy high-speed broadband networks across rural Louisiana. The rules on how to apply for the money were released Thursday.

The first phase will make up to $16 billion available to areas with no service. In Louisiana, about 262,000 people live in areas that aren’t wired for internet, according to BroadbandNow, a Los Angeles-based website that helps people find internet services. Another 439,000 Louisiana residents have only one provider available to them and 404,000 people have low-speed service.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.