Brandon Presley, chairman of the Mississippi Public Service Commission, During the 2019 session, Presley will advocate for legislation to authorize the rural power cooperatives, which are owned by their customers and provide electricity to many, particularly rural areas of the state, to offer high speed internet services. Credit: Mississippi Today

Now that the Mississippi Public Service Commission has completed its work regarding the Kemper County energy facility, Brandon Presley, chairman of the Public Service Commission, laid out the commission’s priorities moving forward, this time with a focus on infrastructure around the state.

At a luncheon for the Capitol press corps Monday afternoon, Presley, who represents the commission’s Northern District, called on utility and telecommunications companies to cooperate with the commission on solving some of Mississippi’s rural infrastructure issues, such as limited access to natural gas and high-speed internet.

He said many broadband providers operate for profit, which has led to a lack of adequate services in rural areas.

“The (broadband) market has 150 percent completely failed rural Mississippi,” Presley said. “What the market and broadband have said in many instances is ‘Rural Mississippi can go pound sand,’ because it’s not profitable.”

While expanding natural-gas infrastructure and high-speed internet access to more rural areas of the state are not new issues or concerns for the commission, Presley mentioned recently-established programs the commission is heading to tackle these problems.

Earlier this month, the commission approved an $11 million rural broadband service project where Entergy and C Spire will collaborate to install and operate fiber optic cable and related broadband infrastructure across more than 300 miles in 15 Mississippi counties. According to commission filings, Entergy will work with the Mississippi Public Utilities staff on a plan to recover the grid modernization costs.

The commission also approved in December a plan for Atmos Energy to take $5 million per year over the next five years — or $25 million total — out of revenue from the company’s private ventures previously approved by the commission to serve areas that lack natural gas service, Presley said.

He also encourages other initiatives and “outside-the-box thinking” from utilities in the same way that Tombigbee Electric Cooperative in Hamilton, Ala., delivers high-speed internet to its rural customers.

It’s a system Presley hopes kicks off among electric cooperatives in Mississippi. He said electric cooperatives in Mississippi are interested and the commission’s legal staff is researching if legislation be would needed for these cooperatives to start services to its customers in the same way.

“If we continue to stick our head in the proverbial sand on this issue, we are complicating the lives and the future of our economy and the education in our state, and we are contributing to the brain drain and the rural drain of our state,” Presley said.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Presley was concerned with limited access to electricity and addressed the state’s private or investor-owned utilities.

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