Digital divide: Plan to expand internet access proves popular in House and with Mississippians

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Charlie Riedel / Associated Press / File

In this file photo, high voltage electric transmission lines are silhouetted against the late day sky near Spearville, Kan. A recent poll found that 83 percent of Mississippians favor allowing the electric cooperatives to offer the internet service.

As early as next week, the Mississippi House could take up legislation designed to at least try to expand access to high speed internet to the state’s underserved rural areas.

No bill has been filed yet, but House Public Utilities Chair Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, said bi-partisan work has been ongoing to develop legislation.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Margaret Ellis Rogers, left, talks to Jim Beckett during a special session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Jackson Tuesday, August 28, 2018.

While Beckett said several options are being discussed, the legislation is likely to allow – not mandate – the state’s 25 customer-owned rural electric cooperatives, previously known as electric power associations, to offer broadband or high speed internet services.

The proposal has vast support across the state, according to a recent poll.

A poll by Chism Strategies, a Mississippi-based consulting company that primarily works for Democratic candidates, found that 83 percent of Mississippians favor allowing the electric cooperatives to offer the service while only 6 percent oppose.

The poll was conducted of 687 Mississippians – designed to match the demographic makeup of the state – earlier this month. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.74 percent.

“The lack of affordable, reliable and adequate internet service in Mississippi is a crisis and is one that we had better fix, if we want our children and grandchildren to stay here,” Democratic Northern Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley wrote last year. Presley has been one of the strongest advocates of allowing the electric cooperatives to offer the service and equates the issue with efforts of bringing electricity to rural areas in the 1930s.

Ben Williams, who lives in the Steens community close to Caledonia in Lowndes County, says the lack of high speed internet forces his wife, Alyka, to drive 30 minutes to the Mississippi University for Women in Columbus where she is a graduate student studying speech therapy to write a paper.

“She has the go to school or to a coffee shop to do work for school,” he said.

Their daughter, who is age 4, will be helped by having the internet in a few years for her school activities. But right now the family does not have reliable, high speed service, he said.

David Kilgore, who lives in rural Gore Springs in Grenada County, said, he has to rely on satellite service for the internet and it often is down in bad weather or even in cloudy conditions.

“I need the internet for my livelihood,” said Kilgore, who provides supplies for businesses. He said he often needs to communicate via the internet with businesses after hours to fulfill their orders.

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.

The legislation will not mandate that the cooperatives offer high speed internet.

But some already have or plan to have some of the equipment and technology in place to offer the services. Others are far behind.

While there seems to be broad support to allow the rural cooperatives to enter the market, there are significant issues to be worked out. Some question allowing them to offer the service in direct competition with private businesses, such as cable companies. Others point out that there are many areas of the state where cable companies are not offering high speed internet and the cooperatives should be given that opportunity.

“I am for it if we can find common ground,” said Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton. “We just need to make sure all the providers are treated the same.”

Beckett said there must be care taken to ensure that the cooperatives are not subsidizing the internet with revenue they receive from electric ratepayers.

Presley said he believes the bill will block revenue from electricity from being used to support any internet business.

“We are trying to help solve a big problem,” Beckett said. “But whatever we do will not solve the problem overnight. It will take time.”