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Mississippi’s Electric Cooperatives Rush to Extend Broadband to Rural Areas

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DW Keefer's picture
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DW Keefer is a Denver-based energy journalist who writes extensively for national and international publications on all forms of electric power generation, utility regulation, business models...

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  • Aug 21, 2020 5:00 pm GMT
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Electric cooperatives in northern Mississippi are using $65 million in federal funding to expand broadband communications services to underserved parts of the state.

Grants made under the recently enacted program will drive construction of more than 2,760 miles of fiber optic cable by the end of 2020 and another 1,980 miles by the end of 2021.

Service is expected to pass nearly 30,000 homes and businesses in the northern part of the state by the end of 2020 and another 17,000 homes  by the end of 2021.

“Admittedly, it’s an aggressive timeline,” said Brandon Presley, a member of the Public Service Commission who represents the state’s northern district.

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In January 2019, former Gov. Phil Bryant signed the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act, which removed a World War II-era regulation banning electric cooperatives from offering anything other than electricity to their members.

In the 18 months since the prohibition was lifted, electric co-ops have moved rapidly to expand fiber to the home in their service areas.

The business opportunity “took the state by storm,” Presley said, with nine of the state’s 25 co-ops reporting construction projects under way before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Earlier this year, Mississippi lawmakers passed legislation earmarking money for high-speed Internet service as part of the roughly $1.25 billion the state received through the federal coronavirus relief package known as the CARES Act.

Mississippi’s broadband grant program, known as the "Mississippi Electric Cooperatives Broadband COVID-19 Act", was established by the legislature under SB 3046. Presley said that 15 of the state’s co-ops are receiving grant money under the program.

The need for broadband service in rural parts of the United States is acute and has grown to become especially critical as the pandemic keeps many people at home and focuses attention on distance learning and telemedicine. An analysis done for the National Urban League and several other organizations  found that roughly 13% of U.S. households with children in 2018 lived in rural areas, and that of those, around 1.7 million households lacked high-speed home Internet service.

The largest gaps were found in rural southern and southwestern states. In particular, Mississippi had the highest percentage of families without high-speed home Internet service, nearly 42%. The state also ranked 49th in the U.S. in broadband coverage, according to 2018 data from BroadbandNow.

Situated on Mississippi’s northern border with Tennessee, Alcorn County Electric Power (ACE) serves 19,000 customers and received a $4.9 million grant under the state’s program to expand broadband service to its customers.

“This grant allows ACE Power to accelerate our commitment to bring high speed broadband technology to 100% of our membership,” said Eddie Howard, CEO of the 85-year-old electric co-op a statement. The grant accelerates the co-op’s broadband build out efforts by 6-9 months.

In addition to ACE Power, these north Mississippi electric cooperatives received grant funds:

Four County Electric Power Association

Tombigbee Electric Power Association

Natchez Trace Electric Power Association

Northcentral Electric Power Association

Tallahatchie Valley Electric Power Association

Delta Electric Power Association

East Mississippi Electric Power Association

Prentiss County Electric Power Association

Tippah Electric Power Association

North East Mississippi Electric Power Association

Monroe County Electric Power Association

Tishomingo County Electric Power Association

Electric co-ops in Mississippi are considered public utilities although they are not subject to rate regulation. Commissioner Presley said that Internet service offerings are set up as separate business distinct from electric service. Legislation enabling the broadband construction grants recognized what legislators said was an “immediate need for reliable internet service” in rural parts of the state, including broadband capacity to help with distance learning, telemedicine, and telework.

Eligible projects had to be designed to immediately provide increased broadband services to an area determined by staff of the state regulatory commission to be unserved or underserved according to Federal Communications Commission broadband data.

The service also must offer high-speed, high-capacity transmission capable of carrying  signals from or to multiple sources at a rate of at least 100 megabits a second in both the downstream and upstream directions.

In addition, grants required a dollar-for-dollar match by project developers. And the grants were limited to a maximum of $6 million with a stipulation that the money be spent no later than December 30.

Broadband to the home remains useless, however, unless computers and other devices are also available. Roughly 17% of all households in Mississippi lack a computer, nearly double the national average.

In early August, the Mississippi Department of Education said it would provide $150 million to school districts to pay for computer devices for students and teachers, software to deliver instruction, enhanced internet connectivity and professional development for digital teaching and learning.

A second pot of money provides $50 million to districts to expand Internet access to students living in underserved areas.

State education officials have been working since the spring to provide computer devices to all students. Dr. Carey Wright, state superintendent of education, said “It is a complex process to supply 466,000 students with computer devices during a global pandemic, especially when other states are competing for the same equipment.”

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