According to Public Service Commission Chairman Brandon Presley, four out of the state’s 26 electric power associations have decided to provide internet service to their electric customers.

The four non-profit co-operatives— Tallahatchie Valley, Tombigbee, Alcorn and Prentiss — that plan to provide high-speed fiber internet to the home are all located in northeast Mississippi in Presley’s district and made their announcements within the space of a week. 

The four co-ops that will provide internet service have about 99,000 combined customers, which represents about 5.5 percent of the 1.8 million mainly rural customers in the state who receive their electricity from one of the EPAs.

Tallahatchie was the first to announce the decision by its members on August 9 and plans to offer the service across its nine-county service area. The news release says it’ll take about 48 months for the system to come online.

Prentiss will pick a contractor in the next two weeks. 

“We’re going to beat this drum until every dirt road and every house and every rural community at the end of the line has the same level of service as a city,” Presley said. He compares high-speed internet service with electricity and says a similar effort like the one that electrified rural areas needs to come from the federal government to bridge what he terms a digital divide.

The Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act was signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant on January 30 and went into effect immediately. The law allows the state’s 26 EPAs, also known as cooperatives, to provide broadband to their primarily rural customer base.

The new law requires EPAs to conduct economic feasibility studies before providing broadband services, maintain the reliability of their electric service, maintain the same pole attachment fees for an EPA-owned broadband affiliate as for private entities wishing to use the EPA’s infrastructure and submit a publicly-available compliance audit annually.

Presley, a Democrat who’s running opposed for his fourth term as the PSC’s Northern District commissioner, also said Mississippi needs more federal funds to expand rural high-speed internet service and that the EPAs won’t be asking the state legislature for any funds this year.

“I don’t believe we’re getting too much federal money in Mississippi to help our people. We’re not getting enough,” Presley said. “We need it more than they need it in Maryland. We need it more than they need it in New York and California. 

“We need it because we’re on the bottom of the economic ladder and until we solve the digital divide in this state, we’re not going to help our economic problems in Mississippi and we’re not going unlock the opportunities that our people deserve to have.”

According to data from the latest FCC wireless competition report from 2017, there is a digital divide in Mississippi. Ninety-five percent of urban residents in Mississippi have access to high-speed internet service (defined as 25 megabits per second or faster). 

In rural areas, only half of residents have access to that level of internet service. In 12 of the state’s 82 counties, five percent of the population or less has access to high-speed internet.

In 27 counties, only 25 percent or less of the population has high-speed internet service available.

Presley is the incoming president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, which is the nationwide trade association for public utility regulators. He said he’ll use that platform to help spread the word about the digital divide between rural and urban areas nationally.