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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.
Tombigbee Electric Power Association (TEPA) will become one of the first electric cooperatives in Mississippi to offer fast, reliable, affordable Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) connectivity to all of its 43,950 residential and commercial members. Made possible through the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act of 2019 (HB 366), TEPA anticipates having coverage to all of its members, mostly in Lee and Itawamba counties, in four years. TEPA recently announced that Conexon will design and manage construction of the network.
Change in Policy = Change in Possibilities
For more than 60 years, a Mississippi law had banned electric cooperatives from offering anything but electricity to their members. After pressure from the state Public Service Commission, Mississippi’s State Legislature passed HB 366 almost unanimously. The bipartisan legislation allows electric cooperatives to provide high-speed Internet access. Approximately two dozen electric cooperatives offer electric service in Mississippi. As a result, this single policy change has the potential to benefit roughly half of the state’s population.
When Governor Phil Bryant signed the bill into law in January 2019, he gave electric co-ops the lion's share of the credit for getting it through the legislature:
"This is a success for the Mississippi Legislature, for all those involved. If anyone wants to know how this bill got passed so quickly talk to the rural electric associations, because we do, and we listen to them."
Wheels in Motion