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Mississippi Electric Co-ops Kick Broadband Projects Into High Gear With Covid Relief Funds
Less than two years after Mississippi lifted its ban on electric cooperative broadband networks, at least 15 of the 25 co-ops in the state have announced plans to provide Internet access to members, with more on the way.
“I would venture to say that there is a higher percentage of co-ops launching [broadband] projects in Mississippi at one time than anywhere else in the country,” said Randy Klindt, partner at Conexon, a consulting firm that is working with several co-ops in the state.
The months in between were marked by two major changes. First, in January of 2019, the Mississippi legislature passed a law that enabled co-ops to create broadband subsidiaries to connect their members. Then a year later, the pandemic hit, highlighting the urgent need for better connectivity and turning the steady stream of cooperative interest in broadband into a veritable flood.
In response to the global health crisis, the state leveraged federal CARES Act money to establish a grant program to fund electric co-op broadband deployment. Through the program, Mississippi awarded $65 million to 15 electric cooperatives to build high-quality Fiber-to-the-Home networks in some of the state’s most disconnected and rural communities, dramatically ramping up the pace of the co-ops’ broadband projects.
“When we started two years ago, I would’ve guessed that you would have had maybe five systems out of 25 in the state that would be to the level where we are now,” Coast Electric Power Association (EPA) President and CEO Ron Barnes said in an interview. “Most people would tell you they were surprised by the speed,” he added.
Opening the Floodgates
Internet access has been lagging in rural Mississippi for years. The state came in at 42 in BroadbandNow’s most recent connectivity rankings. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), at least 35% of rural Mississippians do not have access to the Internet at broadband speeds.
In 2018, the state co-op association, Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi, brought its 25 member organizations together to gauge their interest in changing the state law so the co-ops could address their rural members' inadequate connectivity. At the time, electric co-ops in the state were prohibited from operating for any purpose other than providing electricity to their members.
Following pressure from the electric co-ops and the Mississippi Public Services Commission (PSC), the state legislature kicked off the 2019 legislative session by passing the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act. The new law allowed electric co-ops to create broadband subsidiaries, provided that they were not subsidized by the electric portion of the co-op.
By the end of 2019, a number of Mississippi co-ops — including Tallahatchie Valley EPA, Tombigbee EPA, and North East Mississippi EPA — had jumped on the opportunity to provide Internet access to the residents and businesses they serve. Now, at least 15 of the 25 electric co-ops in Mississippi have announced broadband projects, and others continue to explore the possibility.
The brisk pace of the development of co-op broadband in the state has surprised even supporters of the 2019 Enabling Act. “There were press reports after the governor signed the bill that there wouldn’t be anyone for years deciding to do it,” PSC Commissioner Brandon Presley, an vocal advocate of the legislation, told Governing. “It exceeds my wildest expectations.”
Covid Funds for Connectivity
That so many Mississippi electric co-ops have decided to invest in broadband speaks both to the state’s great need for better connectivity and the values of the co-ops themselves. “As an electric cooperative, we’re in the business of improving our communities,” Barnes explained, “but we kept hearing from our membership across the whole state that there was this real digital divide.”
The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic earlier this year threw rural Mississippians’ broadband woes into even sharper relief as much of daily life moved online. "Whether you're a young kid trying to be educated or an elderly person trying to socially distance and not catch Covid, this was the perfect year to prove that everybody needs access to good broadband," 4-County EPA CEO Brian Clark told the Dispatch.
Electric co-ops and the state association turned to the Mississippi legislature for help meeting their members’ urgent connectivity needs. Barnes described how they presented the problem to elected officials: “Look, you’ve got this CARES Act money and you’ve got this distance learning problem — could we be a solution for that?”
The pitch worked, and legislators passed the Mississippi Electric Cooperatives Broadband COVID-19 Act this past July. The bill allocated $65 million of CARES Act relief funds that the state received from the federal government to provide grants of up to $6 million to electric co-ops to build fiber networks in unserved areas. Funded projects must deploy networks with minimum speeds of 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 100 Mbps upload in unserved or underserved areas, as determined by the FCC.
“Why build a two-lane highway when we are going to need six lanes in the future? The demand for the speed is going to increase . . . and right now, fiber is the way to go,” state Representative Scott Bounds explained to the Neshoba Democrat.
All 15 of the state’s electric co-ops with publicly announced broadband projects received grants from the state fund. Co-ops must contribute matching funds, so the total investment in rural broadband will be more than $130 million statewide. View a list of awardees and amounts on the PSC website.
Members Demand Broadband
The unprecedented growth of electric co-op broadband in Mississippi is due in part to the unprecedented global health crisis. “I think it was a combination of opportunity for the [state] grant, opportunity for future [federal] grants, as well as immediate need caused by the pandemic,” Barnes said of the rapid explosion of projects in the state. The state grant program in particular allowed at least six electric co-ops to officially launch their broadband programs.
But Klindt believes that the publicity around the 2019 law change also played an important role by galvanizing member support for cooperative broadband. He explained:
I’ve seen more of a grassroots membership drive for broadband in Mississippi than I’ve seen anywhere. I’m hearing stories of Facebook groups as large as 4,000 people in a single co-op territory that have been formed to push the co-op to get into the business.
“That’s something I haven’t seen, working with 200 co-ops across the country,” he added.
Barnes has also seen the enthusiasm from Coast EPA members. “Even when we announced our [broadband] pilot area, the first question we got from the majority of people is ‘Why aren’t you coming to our area?’” he shared. “I just think it shows that people desperately need good Internet service.”
(Strong community support isn’t enough to push all co-ops into the broadband business though. Despite keen interest from members, Pontotoc EPA has thus far decided against offering Internet access.)
Build up to Buildout
Some co-ops were already building fiber networks to connect their members before receiving the CARES Act funds. For others, such as Coast EPA, the state grant program marks the co-op’s first foray into broadband.
Coast EPA chose to deploy its new fiber network in one of the most underserved and rural parts of its service territory — the pilot project area has an average of 4-5 meters per line mile compared to 12 meters per mile in the rest of the co-op. Board and management hope to expand the broadband network to the rest of the co-op, and they are looking into other grant opportunities to do so.
4-County EPA also decided to launch its grant-funded network in an area that was most in need of better connectivity. “We hope this is going to get us moving to be able to provide [broadband] for everybody,” spokesman Jon Turner told the Dispatch. “It's a limited amount of money, so we had to allocate it in a way we felt we were going to get the best bang for our buck.”
The new broadband networks will bring a number of benefits to rural Mississippi, improving access to online education and telehealth services as well as promoting population growth and economic development. Fiber connectivity will also help the co-ops better manage their electrical grids. “We just see it as a win-win all around,” said Barnes.
The 15 Mississippi co-ops must finish deploying their CARES Act-funded fiber networks by the end of the year to fulfill grant obligations. Conexon and its partner co-ops have already started construction on the new networks.
For many electric co-ops in the state, this is just the beginning of their broadband journeys. “We haven’t seen the end of it in Mississippi yet,” Klindt predicted.
For more on the growth of cooperative broadband in Mississippi, listen to our recent podcast, Community Broadband Bits episode 423.