FILE - Louisiana Sens. Beth Mizell and Fred Mills

Louisiana state Sens. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, left, and Fred Mills, R-Parks, look at legislation in the final hours of the regular session, on Thursday, June 6, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La.

Allowing municipalities and electricity providers to partner with private companies could promote broadband internet access in rural Louisiana, a state task force heard recently.

A resolution by state Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, approved by lawmakers this year, created the Broadband High-Speed Internet Service Task Force in hopes of figuring out ways to encourage high-speed internet service in unserved or underserved areas

Jason Hunt, founder of Hunt Fiber Networks, told the commission that communities and electricity co-ops have unused fiber optic cable that could be used to provide broadband, but they believe that use has been disallowed by a Public Service Commission ruling.

But Brandon Frey with the PSC said there has been no ruling to that effect. The co-ops can use their infrastructure for high-speed internet, as long as they don’t take on debt to do so.

Louisiana law does present a significant hurdle not found in some states, Hunt said, in that “private easements” cannot be used for broadband, though they are already in use for electricity. What that means in practice is a company looking to provide broadband either has to negotiate with landowners or use public rights-of-way, which can increase costs by 30 to 40 percent, he said.

“If I have 1,000 landowners I’ve got to negotiate with, I’m going to find somewhere else to make money,” Hunt said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture established a $600 million loan and grant program called ReConnect to promote rural broadband access. Hunt has applied for a $42 million loan through the program which he wants to use to connect about 13,000 homes and businesses in Washington, St. Tammany and Tangipahoa parishes, he said.

While ReConnect applications are closed, there is talk of a second round of funding next year. If Louisiana creates a statewide rural broadband plan and puts in place a system for expedited environmental permitting, entities based in the state would have a better chance at the money, Hunt said.

Louisiana currently is in the process of creating a state plan, officials said.

Hunt also suggested lawmakers consider creating tax incentives for internet providers looking to invest in unserved or underserved areas.

“We’re risking real money,” he said.

Staff Writer

David Jacobs is a Baton Rouge-based award-winning journalist who has written about government, politics, business and culture in Louisiana for almost 15 years. He joined The Center Square in 2018.