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Millions In Tax Incentives Earmarked For Rural Broadband Expansion In Oklahoma

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Oklahoma lawmakers passed several bills this session to aid in the state’s effort to expand broadband in rural areas. That includes $42 million in tax rebates for companies to pay for equipment to expand broadband in underserved and rural areas.

Oklahoma House Speaker Charles McCall (R - Atoka) said broadband was among lawmaker priorities this legislative session.

“There is historical investments in education in this budget, infrastructure in the state of Oklahoma, including broadband, which is an issue that through the pandemic that we discovered was very much lacking throughout the state of Oklahoma,” McCall said.

Sen. James Leewright (R - Bristow), who is on the Rural Broadband Expansion Council, said the $42 million is a “huge undertaking.”

Lawmakers passed several other bills to promote broadband, including House Bill 2928, which requires certain providers to submit map data. Senate Bill 802 bill adds two additional members to the Rural Broadband Expansion Council, including one tribal leader.

He said the council is also planning a grant program.

“All federal funds and state initiatives, we'll go through the council so that we can decide where’s the best area to attack and promote those dollars go into the right areas,” Leewright said.

Brian Whitacre, an agricultural economics professor that has studied the impacts of government policy on rural internet availability, said the rebates are good for the state.

“The bill itself is pretty clear that companies can only get reimbursed for equipment, if they go into areas that are right now unserved or underserved, meaning they don't have the official definition of broadband,” Whitacre said. “So I do think this will have a meaningful impact on getting broadband infrastructure out into rural Oklahoma.”

Whitacre’s study has shown that states with state-established broadband expansion offices with full-time employees and grant programs can improve internet access across the state.

Whitacre is on the broadband expansion council for the state, but he said having full-time employees on the council would be beneficial.

“This is something we do, you know, a couple hours a week as an addition to our full time jobs,” he said. “And so, frankly, we can't be as effective as someone who's focusing all their time on this.”

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