/Mississippi is one of the most under-connected states in America Why is that

Mississippi is one of the most under-connected states in America Why is that

Courson told his doctor, “Look, we’ll do it,” As he had predicted, a videoconference was impossible. It wouldn’t connect. It would spin, it’d buffer, and so we ended up talking over the phone. Courson stated that although I wasn’t seen, I was heard. Courson, who lives outside Pontotoc’s city limits, receives his electricity from Pontotoc Electric Power Association. PEPA, an electric cooperative that serves Pontotoc-Calhoun counties, was established in 1930 to provide electricity to rural areas. Everyone who is a member of a cooperative shares in its mutual ownership. The members elect the board members to represent their interests. Private providers such as AT&T and Entergy are privately-owned companies that base their decisions on traditional business calculations. Many others in his community believed that PEPA would begin laying the foundations for broadband service in 2019 after the Legislature approved cooperatives. However, members began to realize that the board was not really interested in getting into the broadband business after they had been debt-free for many years. Courson stated that while fiscal responsibility is not wrong, all of a sudden they woke up to find out that all the EPAs around them had already voted for it. Courson stated that members started to pack the PEPA board meetings with more than 600 people, just before the pandemic. A Facebook group was created to advocate for broadband, which now has nearly 3,000 members. PEPA didn’t decide to provide broadband service, citing it wasn’t economically feasible. Brandon Presley, the Northern District of Mississippi Public Service Commissioner, stated that the co-op didn’t apply to federal or state grants through Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds. These funds would have been used to help pay for the establishment of a broadband network. Courson spoke out about how his community felt about the cooperative’s broadband efforts. According to Broadband Now, which tracks broadband access in the country, approximately 40% and 20% of Pontotoc County are without access to high-speed broadband internet. Courson ran for the position of a PEPA Board member, one of nine individuals who makes decisions on behalf all members of the co-op. Courson defeated his opponent on Thursday and will take office January 1. “What you have in Pontotoc is a highly contested election for board of directors. Candidates are running to defeat (incumbents) board members due to their opposition to broadband. Presley stated that the people will have their say on which way they want it. Mississippi Today did not return a message requesting an interview with PEPA representatives. The cooperative in Pontotoc County and Calhoun is not working towards providing broadband. They are in the same boat with thousands of Mississippians, especially rural ones, who lack access to reliable and affordable broadband. While the digital divide is often discussed, it’s important to remember why one exists. This is a more complicated story with huge consequences. The 81% who live in Mississippi have high-speed broadband internet access. This means that they can technically buy internet service from a provider nearby. This doesn’t necessarily mean that 81% Mississippians have broadband access, but it does indicate that 81% could get one if they had the means. Broadband Now reports that 57% of Mississippians have affordable broadband access. Although the definitions of broadband internet vary between states and federal agencies, it boils down to how fast something can be downloaded or uploaded. Presley believes that the reasons behind the digital divide are complex but rely on a few key concepts. “Before 2019, Mississippi’s policy has not made broadband a priority. It’s that simple. It wasn’t a priority. At the county fair, it was seen as cotton candy. Presley stated that they might not need it, but they might want. Presley said that there was also apathy among policymakers. Presley also pointed out private broadband providers who didn’t expand their efforts to rural Mississippi because it wasn’t profitable. The problem, according to Presley, is the belief that the market will simply provide broadband. “We’ll let it go to the market.” Presley stated that the market would handle it. Rural residents were left to decide whether it was financially viable to offer broadband services. This is usually because there aren’t enough people who will pay for it. If a company felt it couldn’t make enough money laying fiber in rural areas, that area would still be without internet. Presley was the one who authored the Broadband Enabling Act of 2019, which permitted electrical cooperatives to offer broadband service to most rural Mississippians. The cooperatives were allowed only to supply electricity. It was illegal for them to offer broadband. Presley stated that private citizens have considered paying for broadband providers to lay cables near their homes, but that the upfront cost could be as high as $20,000 to $40,000. Internet providers have told rural Mississippi that they will gladly pay $30,000 to install the lines and polls, and $65 per month for internet service. That’s absurd. Presley stated that nobody is going to cover it. This was the same problem that rural America had in the 1930s when electricity was available. That led to the formation of electric cooperatives. “The Broadband Enabling Act of 2019, which is essentially the same as what was available in the ’30s, was the key to solving the problem. It was necessary for everyone. Presley stated that no one can pay for their service individually and that everyone needs it. Although the Broadband Enabling Act allowed cooperatives to offer broadband internet, it was difficult for some co-ops to make that financial reality. The state’s electric cooperatives can be divided into two categories when it comes to broadband. “The ones that can afford it, and those who are trying to figure out how to get there,” stated Michael Callahan, Executive Vice President and CEO of Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi. Callahan stated that the cooperatives that have made it work so far have been smaller and had higher populations. Because there are fewer miles to cover, and therefore more people per mile, cooperatives don’t have to spend as much to lay fiber per meter. This means that they don’t have to pay more to provide the service and are less likely to get opted in. This benefit is not available to cooperatives that serve larger areas that are less densely populated. According to most studies I have seen, your average customer taking your service per mile (to breakeven) is 12-16. Our average line mile meters are 8.8 across the state. It can be as high as 2 to 4 meters per line mile in the Mississippi Delta. Callahan stated that it will be difficult to make broadband work in certain areas of Mississippi due to the low population. Callahan said that even though there are only two households per mile of broadband, the average cost for a co-op to make a profit would be $95 per month. “If we are going to start a business, then we must have a plan to provide broadband service to all Twin County residents. This is part of the Broadband Enabling Act. We have areas that require fiber to be run several miles to reach one account, and that account might not opt in,” stated Tim Perkins (General Manager of Twin County Electric Power Association). Twin County EPA serves mainly Issaquena and Humphreys counties. Sharkey, Sharkey, Washington are the most remote counties in the state. However, Twin County recently began providing broadband. The main ways an electrical cooperative could finance the initial costs of entering the broadband industry were to take out loans, secure grants, or use the profits from its electrical business to invest in the creation of its broadband operations. Co-ops were prohibited from raising the electricity bills of residents to pay for broadband expansion. According to Brent Bailey, the Central District Public Service Commissioner, co-ops may have felt too risky taking out a multimillion-dollar loan to establish a fiber broadband network. This is because people might not be able or willing to sign up. The economic reasons that prevented private providers from providing broadband service in rural Mississippi were, in essence, the same reasons that cooperatives used to decide not to enter the broadband market. Federal and state agencies have made millions of dollars available to grant money since the pandemic. Of the 26 Mississippi electric cooperatives that exist, 15 have received CARES money from the state to help expand their broadband operations. The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is administered by the FCC and grants Mississippi Electric Cooperatives $940 million over 10 years. Three of the nine PEPA board members were up for election in Pontotoc, Calhoun and Calhoun counties. Two of the nine PEPA board member seats were up for election. One was a race between two newcomers to this board. Courson was elected to the board, but a incumbent member defeated a candidate who was campaigning for broadband expansion. Robert Tedford won his seat. He declined to comment on whether he would advocate for broadband expansion in Mississippi Today’s case. Courson is the only member of the board who publicly advocates for broadband expansion in his area. PEPA is already out of millions of dollars in federal and state funding. Still, Courson remains optimistic. Courson hopes that by joining, he can at the very least persuade others to provide broadband service to the community. Courson stated that this is about all they have at the moment.