Mississippi ranks 49th in internet connectivity with nearly 30 percent of the population lacking broadband service, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
The Mississippi Public Service Commission wants to change that by lobbying the legislature to abolish a law that prevents rural electric cooperatives from providing web service.
“The service offered today is inadequate and nothing short of a crisis in rural Mississippi,” Sam Britton, the PSC commissioner for the Southern District that includes Marion County, said in a statement. “It is important to remember that there is no quick fix and no single solution to the issue, thus an ‘all hands on deck’ approach is appropriate. As a supporter of free-market solutions, I believe that any entity that wants to offer high-speed internet service should be allowed to do so.”
Alabama allows electric coops to provide internet, which have existing infrastructure that fiber optic lines can be added to. It’s still expensive to install but has worked in some rural spots in the neighboring state. The costs near Hamilton, Ala., are $49.95 monthly for 100 megabytes-per-second downloads and $79.95 monthly for 1 gigabyte/second at residences, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reported.
There is also $600 million in federal money available for such projects, according to that newspaper.
Kurt Brautigam, spokesman for the Pearl River Valley Electric Power Association, which provides power in rural areas of Marion and surrounding counties, said time will tell whether it would be feasible to take on high-speed internet.
“At this point, we’re trying to gather information and study the issue as are many other electric cooperatives in the state. There are a vast number of questions that will need to be answered, especially legal and financial considerations,” he said. “A project of this scale would likely be more involved and costly than anything Pearl River Valley Electric or any other cooperative in the state has undertaken.”
The latest FCC data for Marion County, which dates to December 2016, shows that 0 percent of the population had access to service that meets the FCC definition of broadband, which is 25 MB/second downloads and 3 MB/second uploads. However, 100 percent had access to 10 MB/second downloads and 1 MB/second uploads, which can be achieved through existing phone lines and is usually fast enough for streaming video.
According to Britton, internet access today can be compared to electricity a century ago and is a factor when businesses decide where to locate.
“This is a complex and expensive issue to implement. Ventures of this sort should be heavily vetted and discussed openly,” he said. “I believe the state’s pursuit of universal access to high-speed internet would be benefited if electric power associations would explore their potential role in solving this issue.”