BECKER – After nearly three hours of speeches, power point presentations, confrontations and the abrupt resignation of a board member, members of the Monroe County Electric Power Association (MCEPA) left the Becker Community Center Aug. 20 without the agreement they wanted from their board of directors to take actions toward providing broadband internet services for their communities.
Specifically, what members of the cooperative, along with Mississippi Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, wanted was for at least three board members to sign an agreement that would allow for three provisions: the formation of an 11-member advisory board of cooperative members to research broadband options, an amendment to the MCEPA charter to allow for the sale of broadband services and to authorize a second feasibility study.
“The future of our area depends on whether action is taken tonight, but inaction is a ‘No.’ The world is passing your children and grandchildren by. It’s disappointing that we have to hold this meeting,” said Presley, who later added, “The window on grant money will soon close. Will the last person shut out the lights when you leave Monroe County? I am calling on the board to pass this special notice to get action.”
In January, Gov. Phil Bryant signed off on a bill by the Mississippi Legislature allowing for electric cooperatives to provide broadband internet service for their customers. While four North Mississippi rural electric cooperatives have either announced they are bringing the service to their customers, or taken the legal steps to get started, the MCEPA has stalled, claiming that while it is for providing broadband service, its leaders think the first feasibility study conducted in February was too aggressive and too expensive.
“What if new technology comes out? Then y’all are on the hook for $30 million,” said MCEPA General Manager Barry Rowland, who added that there was no grant money factored into the feasibility study figures.
Rowland, however, could not catch a break from the crowd of approximately 500 cooperative members who collectively expressed frustration at not having internet service while the MCEPA is spending millions on a new headquarters in Becker, which will indeed have the exact service residents lack.
Other points of contention were Rowland’s comments that it would take eight years to show a profit following the feasibility model done in February, which is based on a two-year build-out, and the Federal Communications Commission census maps he used to show where internet services were currently available.
According to cooperative members present, the maps were inaccurate, and many of the highlighted areas only offered broadband to commercial properties and not residential. The overall consensus of the crowd is MCEPA should be concerned about taking care of the member-owners rather than making money.
According to Presley, the build-out can be done in smaller increments, spreading the financial obligation out through a longer period of time. He referred to Rowland’s explanation as ‘smoke and mirrors’ and ‘fuzzy math.’
Two hours into the meeting, agitated cooperative members demanded the board members to sign the agreement or be removed from their positions, at which time the board agreed to sign if the advisory committee provision was removed. A resounding ‘no’ from the crowd prompted District 2 MCEPA board member Rickey Camp to announce his resignation.
“I signed up to be on an electrical board, not on a broadband board. As far as I’m concerned, I would like to resign tonight and maybe one of you out there can do a much better job than me. I do not want to be responsible for other lives out there and other homes. It’s not worth it to me, to my family getting phone calls about whether to get the broadband or not. I couldn’t care less. I have the internet,” Camp said.
The meeting ended with no signatures on the proposed agreement and no real estimate as to when steps will be taken to bring broadband service to members of MCEPA. However, in a press release issued to the MCEPA Facebook page Aug. 26, Rowland wrote that the MCEPA agreed to and has entered into a second feasibility study with Fiber Rise. Depending on the data gathered and analyzed by the MCEPA’s board of directors, a decision will be made as to if the electric cooperative will move forward with the broadband issue.
As to why the board wanted the advisory committee stipulation removed from the agreement, Rowland stated board members thought they were elected to make the decisions and they want to be the ones to make them.
He also said the board wanted to send out surveys to all cooperative members to gauge interest in the project.
“It speaks volumes that they don’t want anyone studying this issue. We wouldn’t need this agreement if they did their jobs. All the group wanted tonight was action, and this is the exact resistance we’ve seen since the beginning,” Presley said.