House passes broadband bill

By Steve Wilson
January 15, 2019

The Mississippi House passed a bill Tuesday that could allow the state’s electric power associations to provide broadband service to their customers.

On Monday, the House Public Utilities Committee voted to send the House Bill 366, known as the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act, to the floor for a vote.

The bill was authored by House Speaker Philip Gunn (R-Clinton) and it has several provisions that include:

  • Removing the prohibition in state law that prohibited EPAs, also known as co-ops, from conducting any business outside providing electrical service to their customers.
  • A requirement for EPAs to maintain the reliability of their electric service.
  • A mandate for EPAs to conduct feasibility studies before providing broadband services.
  • The EPA would be unable to use electric sales revenues to subsidize its broadband services, but it can make capital investments in the broadband entity along with utilizing loan guarantees.
  • Being compelled to charge the same pole attachment fees to their broadband entity as they would to any outside private entity.
  • EPAs wouldn’t be able to cut off electric service to broadband customers with delinquent bills.

“I’m not here to say this is a perfect bill,” said House Public Utilities Committee Chairman Jim Beckett (R-Bruce). “We’re not going to get everyone broadband overnight. It’s going to take a long time.”

Debate on the bill veered into a discussion over transparency with the finances of the EPAs and the membership of their boards, which are voted on by the customers.

State Rep. Robert Johnson III (D-Natchez) offered five amendments on the bill, with the first three amendments passed on voice votes. The first dealt with investor-owned utilities and the fact the act wouldn’t infringe upon their property or interests.

The second required the EPAs seeking to enact broadband service under the act to send notice of its elections to its board of directors to its customers. The last that passed concerned the information of customers via newspapers about the results of its board elections.

“When you’ve got EPAs that serve 1.8 million people in the state of Mississippi, more than half the state’s population, 60 percent are African-American and only 4.4 percent of the board membership,” Johnson said. “When you talk about women, it’s even less than that. I’m going to support this bill because the chairman (Beckett) did a good job.”

Johnson also tried to pin a reverse repealer clause on the bill, which would’ve brought it back for more work, and require EPAs offering broadband to provide quarterly financial statements to the Mississippi Public Service Commission. Both failed, with the fourth amendment defeated on a 71-42 roll call vote.

State Rep. Mark Baker (R-Brandon) accused Johnson of using the EPA amendments to improve his position regarding litigation regarding the EPAs and their finances.

The EPAs are not-for-profit corporations and are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The state’s two investor-owned utilities — Entergy and Mississippi Power — are regulated by the three-member elected Mississippi Public Service Commission.

Public Service Commission Chairman Brandon Presley, a Democrat, has pushed the issue of rural broadband and was on hand for the vote.

The pole attachment fees are what outside entities pay to the utility to use their infrastructure for running lines to consumers. Since the investor-owned utilities are regulated by Federal Communications Commission when it comes to their pole attachment fees, they’re far lower than the EPAs. The co-ops aren’t subject to pricing rules on pole attachment fees and theirs are conversely higher.

Putting a provision that keeps EPAs from giving their broadband entities a discount on pole connection fees would help the issue of unfair competition in suburban areas of the state served by EPAs and traditional broadband providers such as AT&T, Xfinity and C Spire.

The loan guarantees might be a back door for subsidies, either from state or national taxpayers.

According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, there is $690 million in loans and grants available for the Telecommunications Infrastructure Loan and Loan Guarantee Program. This program, administered by the Rural Utilities Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, provides grants and loans for areas that lack high-speed broadband coverage.


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