Proponents advance rural broadband bill; millions in federal grants at stake

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Legislation to allow the state’s 25 rural electric cooperatives to offer broadband services could be passed this week and pending only the signature of Gov. Phil Bryant to become law.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven

On Tuesday, Senate Energy Committee Chair Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, said quick passage of the bill is needed to give cooperatives times to apply before an April deadline for millions in federal grants that could be used to expand high speed internet to the state’s underserved rural areas.

The bill passed Doty’s Energy Committee Tuesday afternoon and could be taken up on the floor of the Senate as early as Wednesday. The bill passed the House last week.

It is the first legislation being considered during the 2019 session.

If the Senate approves the bill in the same form it passed the House, it will go straight to the governor.

Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley of Nettleton, who has been a vocal advocate of allowing the cooperatives to offer high speed internet, said as much as $100 million in federal Connect America Funds could be available to expand internet to Mississippi’s rural areas and that, in addition, $600 million in the farm bill Congress recently passed could be available nationally.

“They (cooperatives) cannot apply for grants until this bill is approved,” Presley said.

And Doty warned that even if the cooperatives get that authority it could be years before they are in position to provide services to their members.

“But I think it is definitely a step forward and gives us more options for services,” Doty said.

Sen. John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, said that if a cooperative offered high speed internet they should be mandated to provide the services to their entire region within 10 years. But the committee rejected Polk’s proposal.

Doty said the cooperatives should have the authority to determine where it is economically feasible in their service region to offer services. Proponents of the legislation have said the cooperatives that offer the service must develop a plan of intent to expand services to all their customers.

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 cooperatives that date back to the 1930s were formed to bring electricity to rural areas. Electrical cooperatives in the four states neighboring Mississippi are allowed to provide high speed internet.

The cooperatives provide electricity for about half of Mississippi’s population.

The bill also includes language to mandate that the cooperatives provide more information about the elections to their boards of directors. In the House, Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, who successfully amended the bill to mandate more notice of elections, said less than 5 percent of board members are African American or women.