By Robert Swift
Staff Writer

HARRISBURG (Nov. 3) – Gov. Tom Wolf has signed a state law making it easier to use existing electric transmission lines to install fiber cable for broadband access in rural areas.

The enacted House Bill 2438 allows rural electric cooperatives to use existing electric lines and poles to attach fiber cable without having to change easements with individual landowners. It would do this by clarifying that attaching broadband equipment to an existing electric line doesn’t constitute a change to the physical use of the easement or interfere with, impair any property rights, or place additional burdens on the property.

The law applies only to existing infrastructure that can meet safety standards and has structural integrity, but not to new poles or structures.

It solves a problem where some easements held by rural cooperatives do not specifically permit them to attach fiber cable to those electric lines, said Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Tioga, the bill sponsor. Therefore, the cooperatives have to go to individual property owners to change the easement which is very costly, he added.

The new law has the support of the Pennsylvania State Grange and rural electric cooperatives.

HB2438 would allow rural electric cooperatives and others easier access to “piggyback” on the electrical wiring already in place, said Grange President Wayne Campbell recently.

“This law has effectively cut through some of the red tape that has been holding us back from better broadband service in rural Pennsylvania,” said Owlett. “We still have work to do, including a bill that would identify funding for expansion projects.”

Owlett’s reference here is to two companion Senate and House bills passed by their respective chambers that would create a new $5 million state broadband grant program through the repeal of an existing annual $5 million state Mobile Telecommunications Broadband Investment Tax Credit.

Senate Bill 835 sponsored by Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria, and House Bill 2348 sponsored by Rep. Martin Causer, R-Bradford, would put this grant program under the Commonwealth Financing Authority and it would also draw on additional state and federal funds. The legislation would target investment only to unserved areas and limit grant eligibility to “non-governmental” entities that commit a minimum 25 percent of a company’s private capital to finance a project.

The state Independent Fiscal Office recommended the repeal of the telecommunications tax credit earlier this year while doing a review of tax credit programs.

A recent broadband access study by the Joint State Government Commission urges creation of this grant program.

SB835 is in the House Appropriations Committee; HB2348 is on first consideration in the Senate. Causer has amended SB835 in the House to specify that grantees use technology with a capacity for a minimum speed adopted by the Federal Communications Commission or a speed of at least 25 megabits per second downstream or three megabits per second upstream.

The question is whether one of these bills can get to final passage during the lame duck legislative session after the election.

Both chambers are currently scheduled to be in session only on Nov. 10, but they still face plenty of work to adopt a state budget and associated budget bills, such as a fiscal code, for the remaining seven months of Fiscal Year 2020-21 before the session formally ends on Nov. 30.

A stop-gap, five-month state budget was enacted at the end of May reflecting the uncertainty of the state revenue picture during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

SB835’s tax provision suggests it could be a candidate for inclusion in a fiscal code bill.

The House is finalizing the agenda for the remaining session and doing budget planning, said Jason Gottesman, spokesman for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre.

The head of a broadband industry group hopes for some action.

“I’m not sure what will happen in the House when they come back, but we would like to see the House pass the bill [SB835] and we would like to see the Senate concur,” said Daniel Tunnell, president of the Broadband Cable Association of PA. “It would make sense for the funding to be included in the budget discussions.”

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