Opinion: Electric companies should be allowed to offer high-speed internet

Published 9:34 am Thursday, January 10, 2019

The lack of access to affordable high-speed internet is one of the greatest challenges facing rural America today. As society becomes increasingly wired, the impact of not having robust online service becomes more acute.

No longer is it merely about entertainment or social communication. Barriers to high-speed internet limit access to educational resources, employment opportunities, business technologies, telehealth services, job training courses and so many benefits that have become vitally important in today’s world. The issue puts rural communities at a significant competitive disadvantage in terms of attracting both businesses and residents.

In a predominantly rural state like Mississippi, the topic takes on added significance.

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Yet, while most would agree that it’s important to expand rural broadband, the question becomes how to do so and at what cost.

That’s what makes it meaningful to find private models elsewhere that have proven successful. And you don’t have to look far beyond Northeast Mississippi to find one that has gained national recognition.

The Tombigbee Electric Cooperative in Hamilton, Alabama, is providing high-speed internet and HD phone services to its customers, utilizing the infrastructure it has in place to reach its rural members. It’s a model that could have a big impact here with one catch — state law currently restricts Mississippi’s electric power associations to providing only electricity.

That’s why Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley is leading a push to change that 1942 law.

The Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act would allow EPAs to own, build, maintain and operate a broadband system as part of their electric delivery system, as reported by the Daily Journal’s Dennis Seid. It would not require EPAs to provide such service, but would give them the option. It also would not spend any public funds.

The bill appears to have broad bipartisan support among Mississippi lawmakers, who open a new legislative session Tuesday. Supporters also include the state chapter of AARP, the Mississippi Farm Bureau, the Mississippi Association of Realtors, 41 counties and 62 cities.

We think it is a common sense solution to an important challenge, and we urge lawmakers to act quickly to pass it.

The bill will not immediately solve Mississippi’s need for rural internet. Installing broadband will be expensive, and many electric associations will not opt to do so.

In Alabama, Tombigbee Electric Cooperative has spent $45 million in offering the service, but it has done so in phases over a number of years. TEC was also aided by private investment and state and federal grants.

If such a model has worked in Alabama, Mississippi should be allowed to try it.

— The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal