AUSTIN (KXAN) — This week, the Public Utility Commission (PUC) voted unanimously to pass the Middle Mile Broadband rule, which aims to increase Internet access in underserved and underserved areas of Texas.
“It will enable utility companies to lease excess fiber capacity to [internet service providers] provide broadband services to unserved and underserved parts of the state,” David Smeltzer with the PUC told commissioners at a meeting Thursday.
The ‘middle mile’ here is the physical infrastructure that homes need to connect to the Internet – leveraging the extra fiber capacity that is already in place.
“Broadband is an essential tool for education, telemedicine, businesses and more — which is why the state of Texas has made it a priority to close the digital divide and ensure Internet access in the Lone Star State,” Governor Greg Abbott said in a statement this week. .
“The implementation of the first middle mile rule is an incredible achievement for Texas, and it will strengthen our efforts to expand broadband access in underserved communities across the state,” continued Abbott.
The new rule is part of House Bill 3853, passed at the 87th regular legislative session last year after the pandemic shed light on connectivity issues that have been lurking for years.
The state also set up a Broadband Development Office, but the PUC was needed to regulate the role of the electric utilities in the new rule.
“The reason the committee needs to be most acutely involved in this is because we need to make sure electrical taxpayers are kept harmless from a cost perspective,” Smeltzer said.
Electric utilities cannot pass on costs associated with medium broadband services to their tariff payers, nor can utilities provide Internet service directly to end-users on a retail basis.
The PUC adds that the rule defines an unserved area as one or more counting blocks, in which 80% or more of the end-user addresses do not have access to broadband service or cannot access reliable broadband service, as determined using the mapping criteria of the Federal Communications Commission.
An understaffed area is defined as one or more count blocks that are not unmanned and in which 80% or more of the end-user addresses in each count block do not have access to broadband services with a download speed of not less than 100 megabits per second and an upload speed of not less than 20 megabits per second, or not having access to reliable broadband services at those speeds as determined using FCC allocation criteria, if available.
Smeltzer added that several utilities have already prepared for the new rule.
“We are aware that some utilities have been eagerly awaiting this rule. Some of them have already drawn up contracts in which they want to get this moving,” he said on Thursday.
The state’s Broadband Development Office will release a comprehensive plan in June this year that will recognize barriers to broadband use, among other challenges.