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AUSTIN (KXAN) — This week, the Public Utility Commission (PUC) voted unanimously to pass the Middle Mile Broadband rule, aiming to increase internet access in unserved and underserved areas of Texas.

“It’s going to allow electric utilities to lease out excess fiber capacity to [internet service providers] provide broadband service to unserved and underserved areas of the state,” David Smeltzer with the PUC outlined to commissioners during a meeting on Thursday.

The ‘middle mile’ here is the physical infrastructure needed for homes to connect to the internet — tapping into the extra fiber capacity that’s already in place.

“Broadband is an essential tool for education, telemedicine, businesses, and more – which is why the State of Texas has prioritized closing the digital divide and ensuring internet access across the Lone Star State,” said Governor Greg Abbott in a statement this week.

“The adoption of the first middle mile rule is an incredible achievement for Texas, and it will enhance our efforts to expand broadband access in underserved communities across the state,” Abbott continued.

The new rule is part of House Bill 3853, passed during the 87th Regular Legislative Session last year after the pandemic shed light on connectivity issues that have been building for years.

The state also established a Broadband Development Office, but the PUC was needed to regulate the electric utilities’ role in the new rule.

“The reason why the commission has to be involved with these most acutely is because we need to make sure that electric ratepayers are held harmless, from a cost perspective,” Smeltzer said.

Electric utilities cannot pass down any costs related to middle mile broadband services to their ratepayers, and utilities also cannot deliver internet service directly to end-use customers on a retail basis.

The PUC adds that the rule defines an unserved area as one or more census blocks, in which 80% or more of end-user addresses have no access to broadband service or lack access to reliable broadband service as determined using Federal Communications Commission mapping criteria.

An underserved areas is defined as one or more census blocks that are not unserved and in which 80% or more of end-user addresses in each census block lack access to broadband service with a download speed not less than 100 megabits per second and an upload speed not less than 20 megabits per second, or lack access to reliable broadband service with those speeds as determined using FCC mapping criteria, if available.

Smeltzer added that several utilities have already been gearing up for the new rule.

“We’re aware that some utilities have been eagerly waiting this rule. Some of them have contracts already sort of lined up where they’re looking to get this moving,” he said Thursday.

The state’s Broadband Development Office is set to release a comprehensive plan in June of this year that, ‘will acknowledge barriers to broadband use, among other challenges.’