Rural broadband legislation brings challenges

By CEO Randy Carroll

In my January article, I discussed the possibility of legislation being introduced allowing Mississippi’s electric cooperatives to provide broadband service if we determined it was operationally and financially feasible.

On Tuesday, Jan. 15, our State House of Representatives passed HB366 allowing cooperatives to form subsidiary businesses to explore providing broadband to our members. The legislation passed 115 in favor to 3 opposed, and on Wednesday, Jan. 23, the Bill passed unanimously in the Senate. Governor Phil Bryant signed the Bill into law on Wednesday, Jan. 30.

The legal and financial challenges associated with broadband are a different story. Now that we have permission from the legislature, we ask for patience from our members. Many questions must be answered before we can make decisions about a path forward. These questions include the proper corporate structure to use, tax implications and financial feasibility. East Mississippi Electric Power Association must now ramp up our study efforts of broadband and continue to reach out to possible partners that can play a role in the delivery of broadband service.

I must admit, with the passage of this legislation, a lot of the same anxiety I feel when a big storm hits, is what I am feeling now. When large portions of our system are impacted, we are faced with the tremendous task of restoring the power. Of course, everyone that has lost power wants it restored to his or her home or business first. Sadly, we can’t get everyone back on at once.

First, we must clear the transmission system and restore power to the substations. We then work the three-phase lines followed by the single-phase lines and finally the services to the homes and businesses. It must be in this orderly progression, or everyone remains without power longer. Yes, those closest to the energy source see their service restored first, but in turn provide the needed link to continue throughout the remainder of the system so that all have power again.

I fully expect broadband to follow this same progression of the source to a needed link. It will take time and substantial capital to construct a system capable of supplying broadband to all in our communities. We at EMEPA, continue to believe greater broadband availability in our services areas will benefit our members substantially, including improvements in quality of life, economic development, education opportunities, health-care benefits and economic growth.

We hear frequently from our members their need for broadband access. Many have tried to purchase access from other utilities and have been told it is not financially feasible to build the infrastructure required to gain access to broadband in their area. This is much like the arguments used in the 1930s when people requested electricity, and from the profit-oriented business perspective, it is a true statement given the return on investment required by these companies.

So where does that leave EMEPA and our members? We ask for your patience as we continue to study the economic feasibility of providing broadband to our members. There remains substantial work to be done. It is without a doubt an expensive proposition. A backbone fiber solution on the EMEPA system could cost as much as $145 Million in addition to the added cost of service and equipment to each home.

It is extremely critical that we perform this analysis correctly. We must address and resolve multiple legal and economic issues in a careful, fully-informed and comprehensive way, and in a way that gets quality, reasonably-priced broadband to as many Mississippians as possible without negatively affecting the distribution system we have worked so hard to build over these 80 years.

Occasionally, I still run into people that tell me stories of how their grandparents waited for electric service to come to their homes. Some waited months and some waited years for cooperative employees to tirelessly work to build the electric distribution system that would someday enhance their quality of life. It won’t surprise me for this to be true with a broadband system as well, but if the first pole had not been set and the first wires strung, rural America would still be dark. It is time to make every attempt possible to bring educational, healthcare and economic growth opportunities to the communities served by EMEPA.

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