Senators want to tap U.S. electric grid for broadband rollouts

A pair of U.S. senators introduced new legislation designed to speed broadband rollouts by leveraging the country’s existing electrical grid. Though the bill’s chances of becoming law are unclear, its arrival comes as rural electric cooperatives increasingly get into the broadband game.

Dubbed the GRID Broadband Act, the measure would require the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to dish out grants to facilitate the construction or expansion of middle mile fiber infrastructure along electrical grid lines. Grant recipients would be required to provide interconnection services and use the funding to help harden the electrical grid against cyber attacks. Money from the grants could be used to cover up to half of project costs, with the recipients required to cover the other half.

It is unclear where funding for the grants would come from. Fierce has reached out to the bill’s sponsors for more information and will update this story if further information is provided.

Senator Maria Cantwell, the legislation’s co-sponsor, called the proposal “a triple win solution for consumers because it leverages existing rights-of-way and private sector ingenuity and investment to deliver cleaner electricity, stronger cybersecurity, and more accessible broadband services.”

She continued “Almost a century ago, the Rural Electrification Act helped bring power and productivity to every American home and business, now we can piggyback on that success by using the same network to also deliver the data and information America needs to prosper in this century.”

A number of industry groups backed the bill, including the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), Edison Electric Institute, Utilities Technology Council and Wireless Internet Service Providers Association.

The idea of using existing electrical infrastructure to push broadband into hard to reach parts of the country is nothing new for rural electric utilities. In February, NRECA CEO Jim Matheson told Fierce around 200 of its 900 members either already offered or were in the process of deploying broadband services. He added the move is a natural next step for the companies given many already use fiber optic backbones to run their electric utility systems.

In at least two states – Arkansas and Indiana – electric cooperatives are joining hands to create statewide fiber networks. Operating collectively as Diamond State Networks, co-ops in the former are aiming to provide middle mile fiber transport routes for last-mile ISPs and wireless operators. Meanwhile, in Indiana co-ops formed two different groups which each sought to create a statewide fiber network. Those two groups subsequently joined forces to create an even more expansive system.