Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell said in an interview Tuesday he is committed to support plans by two rural electric cooperatives in North Louisiana to compete for federal grants to develop internet service.
The cooperatives, Claiborne Electric in Homer (which provides power to Union Parish) and Northeast Power in Winnsboro, have provided electricity to rural North Louisiana customers since they were founded with government help nearly a century ago.
“We have a solution to our problem, Campbell said Tuesday. “We’re going to use that successful business model – targeted federal investment – to deliver broadband to areas that have few other options.”
Federal agencies are expected to distribute more than $600 million in Louisiana over the next 10 years to expand high-speed internet service. Campbell has urged broadband providers to compete for that funding. That would be $15 – to $25 million to build out the infrastructure to be able to provide the broadband service.
“These are our tax dollars,” he said. “Few public needs are as vital right now as broadband access, so we should fight to capture these dollars for our state.
“So much of our education, healthcare, and commerce is now conducted online, so reliable, fast and affordable internet service is needed in every household and every community.”
Claiborne Electric has been looking at this option for several years, according to Manager of Member Relations Joey White. “We’ve wanted this for some time,” he said. The Co-op has already updated its franchise agreements with the Town of Farmerville and the Union Parish Police Jury to add “other services” to the language. Current agreements have language that just specifies that Claiborne Electric can provide electricity using its current rights of way.
White said there will a reverse auction, where businesses will compete for the grant money. Population blocks will be auctioned at a given value and companies will bid to take that block for the lowest price. “Just because one company takes the auction doesn’t mean other companies can’t still provide the service,” White said.
Claiborne’s advantage is already having a delivery method in place that will allow them to run fiber into homes using the existing service poles. The grant money would help to keep the cost of the service down by not having to pass along the infrastructure cost to the consumer. “We don’t want service that is too expensive for consumers,” Campbell said.
“This needs to be a service that our rural customers can afford.”
Campbell said he will ask the PSC this month to support proposals by Claiborne and Northeast to create subsidiary companies that will offer internet service in their regions. “We could see rural broadband in place from Minden to the Mississippi River,” Campbell said. The Louisiana co-ops are part of a trend across the country of New Dealera power cooperatives entering the broadband business.
“Rural residents and business owners in North Louisiana have received reliable and reasonably priced electric service from these co-ops for decades,” Campbell said. “I believe they can count on the same for internet service.”
Studies have shown that North Louisiana has more territory without good broadband options than many other parts of the country, Campbell said. “All of the 24 parishes in my PSC district need better broadband access,” he said.
Yet despite the constant demand for the service, the PSC lacks authority to regulate internet providers and so Campbell cannot compel companies to go into unserved areas.
“That is why we must be innovative and look for opportunities like these federal grants,” he said.
“I won’t rest until every household, business and institution in North Louisiana can get affordable and reliable internet service.”