/Digital divide Plan to expand internet access proves popular in House and with Mississippians

Digital divide Plan to expand internet access proves popular in House and with Mississippians

Although no bill has yet been filed, Jim Beckett (R-Bruce), House Public Utilities Chair, stated that bipartisan work is ongoing to create legislation. Beckett stated that there are many options being considered, but the legislation will likely allow the state’s 25 rural electric cooperatives owned by customers, formerly known as electric power association, to offer high-speed internet service. According to a poll, the proposal is supported by a large portion of the state. Chism Strategies, a Mississippi-based consultancy company that works mainly for Democratic candidates, conducted a poll that found that 83% of Mississippians support allowing electric cooperatives to provide the service, while 6 percent disagree. This poll, which was taken earlier this month from 687 Mississippians, was designed to reflect the state’s demographic makeup. The margin of error is plus/minus 3.74 percent. Brandon Presley, Democratic Northern Public Service Commissioner, wrote last year that Mississippi has a shortage of reliable, affordable and adequate internet service. Presley is a strong advocate for allowing electric cooperatives to provide the service. He compares the problem to efforts to bring electricity to rural areas in 1930s. Ben Williams, who lives near Caledonia, Lowndes County in the Steens community, said that his wife Alyka must drive 30 minutes to Mississippi University for Women in Columbus to complete a paper. He said, “She must go to school or to a cafeteria to do school work.” Their 4-year-old daughter will benefit from the internet within a few years to help her school activities. He said that the family doesn’t have high-speed internet service and does not have reliable access. David Kilgore, a rural Gore Springs resident in Grenada County said that he relies on satellite internet service to get the internet. It is often down in bad weather and even in clouds. Kilgore, who supplies businesses with supplies, said that he relies on the internet to sustain his livelihood. Kilgore said that he needs to be able to communicate with businesses via the internet after hours in order to fulfill orders. Multiple studies show that Mississippi ranks near the bottom for broadband access. According to the Federal Communications Commission, Mississippi ranks last for broadband access. 72 percent of Mississippi’s population has access to upload speeds of 3 mbps or more and download speeds of 25 mbps or less. Presley stated that speeds are not fast enough to perform certain activities such as telemedicine. However, the legislation does not require cooperatives to offer high-speed internet. Some have the technology and equipment in place, while others plan to do so. Others are further behind. There seems to be widespread support for rural cooperatives entering the market. However, there are many issues that need to be resolved. Some are concerned that they will be competing with cable companies by offering the service. Others argue that cable companies do not offer high-speed internet in many parts of the state and cooperatives should have that option. Senator Terry Burton, R-Newton, said that “I’m for it if there is common ground.” “We just have to make sure that all providers are treated equally.” Beckett stated that it is important to ensure that cooperatives don’t subsidize the internet through the revenue they get from electric ratepayers. Presley stated that he believes that the bill will prevent any revenue from electricity being used to support internet businesses. Beckett stated that “we are trying to solve a huge problem.” It will take time to solve the problem. It will take time.”