By CEO Randy Carroll
This year marks the 80th year East Mississippi Electric Power Association has been delivering the energy needed to empower lives and grow our communities. The 139 employees of EMEPA are dedicated to building, maintaining and operating over 5,700 miles of distribution lines in a safe, affordable and reliable manner. To do so requires well-educated and technically trained people that have the foresight to see changes in our industry long before they become overwhelming challenges.
Today, electric cooperatives across our nation are faced with ever-changing technologies, demands for uninterrupted power supply and desires for alternative sources of electric power like wind and solar. More recently, a call for cooperatives to use the same model that brought electricity to rural areas is being suggested to meet the need for rural broadband service. Discussions are taking place nationally, regionally and locally concerning what role electric cooperatives might play in providing or facilitating broadband access.
We at EMEPA do believe greater broadband availability in our services areas would benefit our members substantially, including improvements in quality of life, economic development, education opportunities, health-care benefits and electric system growth.
In Mississippi, electric cooperatives are limited purpose corporations and currently do not have the authority to provide broadband. We were chartered to provide electric service to member-owners in areas not being served at the time. To ensure financial stability in those areas, certificated areas were defined through the public service commission. Investor-owned utilities were given specific areas to serve, and cooperatives were given the remaining areas. In these defined service territories, the party responsible for their certificated area had the exclusive right to serve electricity in conjunction with the responsibility to serve all that request service.
We frequently hear of the need for broadband access throughout our service area from our members. Many request services from other utilities and are told it is not financially feasible to build the infrastructure required to gain access to broadband in their area. This is the same argument used in the 1930s when people requested electricity in rural areas. For the investor-owned companies, it is a true statement given the return on investment required by their shareholders.
So where does that leave EMEPA and our members? We, along with 19 cooperatives throughout the state, have engaged the assistance from consultants who have conducted preliminary studies to examine the economic feasibility of installing a fiber network for electric (smart grid) purposes and utilizing the excess fiber to provide broadband to members. However, there remains substantial work to be done.
The legal and financial challenges associated with broadband are significant. Many questions must be answered before any decisions on a path forward can be made, including questions relating to statutory and corporate authorization, entity structure, tax implications and financial feasibility. We are continuing to study the broadband issues and have reached out to possible partners, but are not yet able to determine what role, if any, cooperatives can play in the provision of broadband.
It is extremely critical that any broadband legislation affecting the cooperatives be done correctly. Any such legislation must address and resolve multiple legal and economic issues in a careful, fully informed and comprehensive way and in a way that provides quality, reasonably priced broadband to as many Mississippians as possible.
Our preferred choice would be for existing broadband providers to quickly and affordably provide the services in which they are so experienced to all areas of our state, but we will continue to explore all avenues for potential benefit to our members. As the needs of our members grow, we continue to look for opportunities to empower east Mississippi as we have for the past 80 years.