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Today is May 22, 2019

Editorial

Broadband…what’s next

By Michael Callahan

Michael Callahan
Michael Callahan,
Executive Vice President/CEO
EPAs of Mississippi

In the past 18 months, there has been much discussion across the state about access to quality, high-speed broadband service in rural areas of Mississippi. This conversation has centered on the role electric cooperatives play in quality-of-life issues and economic development, and we have certainly been involved in the dialogue. The conversation intensified last summer with elected officials focused on changing state law to allow electric cooperatives to enter this business.

In January, both the Senate and House joined in the discussion and passed legislation allowing your electric cooperative to offer broadband service. We offer our thanks to Gov. Phil Bryant, who signed the legislation, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, House Speaker Philip Gunn and the legislators who supported the bill.

For more than a year, electric cooperatives in Mississippi have been doing their homework with extensive studies and research. Once it became apparent to our board of directors that legislation was going to be introduced, we felt it was important to openly discuss and address our areas of concern. A work group was developed to review what it would take, based on what other states had done, to legally allow our electric cooperatives various opportunities to provide or assist in delivering broadband service. 

Last November, we invited all legislators and elected state officials to a broadband summit. At this meeting, we discussed the issues and provided details on what legislative changes lawmakers needed to consider when drafting new legislation. One message was clear: we could not allow our entry into this business to have an adverse effect on our electric distribution service and rates.

Our biggest challenge is our density as we average only eight members per mile of line in Mississippi. Each cooperative will have to take a close, detailed look at its own demographics and density and determine whether it’s feasible for them to consider offering broadband service.

Mississippi’s electric cooperatives are led by and belong to the people and communities we serve. These electric cooperatives are very diverse and serve a range from 7,900 to 82,000 electric meters. These decisions will have to be made by local boards of directors an­­d will not be made until careful consideration is given to all aspects of providing broadband service and determine what is in the best interest of you, our members.

The new legislation, while offering protection for our electric consumers, allows our associations the flexibility to explore different business models which include, but are not limited to, partnerships with other telecommunication providers.

In the very beginning we were very open and honest with our elected officials and we will continue to communicate with our members as we go through the process. Throughout the process we have reiterated that electric cooperatives cannot solve the problem of broadband access in Mississippi. However, we can work with each other, as well as other partners, to help make life in Mississippi better and that was the goal of the bill.

It is important to note that while we have received permission, we now stress the importance of patience. There are many legal and financial challenges ahead of us. These challenges cannot and will not be solved quickly, but the first step has been taken.

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