Brandon Presley, Northern District representative, Public Service Commission Credit: Kendra Ablaza/Mississippi Today

The state Public Service Commission this week has awarded $268 million to local electric cooperatives across the state to hook up more than 102,000 homes and businesses to broadband internet.

Mississippi’s expansion of internet services, fueled by $570 million in federal money with more on the way, promises to be as life-altering for rural Mississippi as electricity was in the 1930s, PSC Northern District Commissioner Brandon Presley said.

Mississippi has ranked near the bottom — as low as 49th in some studies — among states for access to broadband internet services, with about 40% of the state lacking access.

“I will not stop on this mission until the last house at the end of the most rural road is connected,” said Presley, who has championed expansion of broadband to rural areas before lawmakers in Jackson and Washington. “… Our state is expanding connections at an unprecedented pace. I have a co-op here in the Tupelo area making about 50 connections a day — that’s more than anywhere else in the country … I assure you Mississippi has the pedal to the metal with broadband right now.”

The funding awarded this week is part of $495 million the state is receiving from the federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund — the second-largest earmark behind California. Last year, Mississippi lawmakers routed $75 million in federal COVID-19 relief money to broadband expansion, and the state expects to receive another $166 million for broadband and other infrastructure from the recently passed federal American Rescue Act. Beyond that, Presley said, money from the Biden administration’s proposed infrastructure spending plan would likely go to rural broadband expansion as well.

Presley on Monday kicked off signing ceremonies for the funding awards to electric co-ops on Robins Field in Tupelo, where President Franklin Roosevelt once announced Tupelo as the first Tennessee Valley Authority city in the push to bring electricity to rural America.

The Legislature in 2019 adopted a measure to allow local co-operatives to provide internet services. This year, lawmakers passed a measure to allow existing and future unused fiber optic lines, or “dark fiber” owned by Entergy and Mississippi Power Co. to be used for broadband expansion. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said this will add thousands of miles of cable for broadband expansion, which he called a “giant step” for Mississippi.

Presley said the internet service expansion funded by the money awarded this week to 13 electric co-operatives should be completed within three years, with much of the work, and connections, done far sooner. Some co-operatives “are already halfway there, without having received a dime yet” and at least a couple will complete their expansion by the end of this year.

“We know that while these funds will help a lot of people, we still have tens of thousands of homes to get to, and areas that may have some connection, but are really underserved,” Presley said.

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.