Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley believes access to high speed internet in rural areas is as important now as was providing electricity in the early 20th century.
“It is the No. 1 request that comes to the PSC,” Presley said. “It is what I get asked about everywhere I go.
“I stop into a country store to get a Coca Cola, and the first thing I am asked is when are we going to get internet.”
Presley, a Nettleton Democrat, believes Mississippi’s 25 rural electric power cooperatives can play a vital role in providing high speed internet to underserved areas. As chair of the PSC, which provides oversight and regulations to Mississippi utilities, he said internet access is a major issue for him.
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.
“This is about being a door opener for high speed internet to the rural areas,” Presley said. “Ask any politician in the state should people in rural areas have access to the same internet services as people in Jackson?”
He said it is an economic development, as well as quality of life issue. Presley cites the lack of high speed internet access in some parts of the state as one of the reasons for “brain drain” — where educated millennials are leaving the state.
“Our proposal will not ask for one copper penny of taxpayer money. And it will not propose any new regulations,” said Presley. “It will just give the EPAs the option to offer the services.”
The rural electric cooperatives, used to be known as electric power associations, trace their genesis to the 1930s when they were created through federal legislation to help bring electricity to rural areas.
Presley and others maintain the lack of accessible high speed internet is placing rural communities at a disadvantage just as the lack of electricity did at an earlier time.
For instance, state Sen. Neil Whaley, R-Potts Camp, said he has a family member living in rural Marshall County in north Mississippi, working for a tech company, who had the opportunity to work from home for the company, but could not because of the lack of high speed internet.
“I am definitely interested in this issue,” he said.
But as often is the case in the legislative process, passing the law might not be simple as it seems.
State Rep. Jody Steverson, R-Ripley, who is vice chair of the House Public Utilities Committee, said there are some issues with allowing the cooperatives to offer internet services. Steverson, who admittedly has a background of being employed in the cable television and internet provider industry, said he is concerned with cooperatives, which are public utilities, competing against private companies in more populated areas. And, he said, he is concerned about the cooperatives incurring debt by trying to offer the service in more rural areas where it is not cost effective.
“Another question about this possible legislation is how will getting into the broadband business impact (utility) pole attachment rate terms and conditions between EPAs and other telecoms once they are in competition?” Steverson asked. It is not uncommon for cable companies to rent space on utility poles from electricity providers.
Still, Steverson said he will be open-minded on any proposed legislation.
According to various studies, Mississippi is near the bottom in terms of access to high speed internet or broadband. The Federal Communications Commission ranks Mississippi last in terms of broadband access with 72 percent of the population having access to download speeds of at least 25 mbps and upload speeds of 3 mbps. Presley said that speed is in reality not fast enough for some activities, such as conducting telemedicine.
When asked about the rural cooperatives, Lisa Shoemaker, executive director of the Mississippi Cable Telecommunications Association, said, “Mississippi cable operators support efforts to expand broadband to unserved areas. We welcome discussion with other telecomm providers as well as legislative leadership and Gov. Bryant on ways we can work together to close the digital divide in Mississippi.”
She said that members of her association had invested $381 million and are now investing $48.5 million annually “to expand both the capacity and reach of our broadband networks. Those networks span 24,000 miles making our services available to approximately 850,000 homes and businesses, including many rural customers in Mississippi.”
But Presley maintains that if the traditional companies are not going to fill the broadband void, the cooperatives should have that option.
Michael Callahan, chief executive of the Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi, said that the rural electric power cooperatives believe better broadband access is crucial “for the growth and future of the state.”
He said, “At this time, 19 of our 25 electric distribution cooperatives are involved in feasibility studies regarding offering rural broadband services. They will be reviewing all aspects and, at the appropriate time, each will make a decision whether to enter the business. If the studies are positive and legislation is passed to allow us to offer broadband, we believe some will offer the services.”
Presley said $600 million in federal funds exist to provide grants to rural electric power cooperatives to help them with development of broadband. Mississippi cannot access those funds because state law does not allow rural electric power cooperatives to provide internet services.
“It is a horse and buggy law,” Presley said.
He is pattering possible Mississippi electric cooperatives’ involvement in broadband services with what is occurring next door in Alabama with the Tombigbee Rural Electric Cooperative that is based in Hamilton – near the border with northeast Mississippi.
Tombigbee received a $3 million federal grant and has a goal of providing high speed internet to more than 70,000 residents over 1,300 miles in northwest Alabama. The service will provide speed of at least 100 mbps to customers.
Presley held an event in June in Hamilton attended by 45 Mississippi legislators and other officials to tour the Alabama effort.