TUPELO • In January, Gov. Phil Bryant signed off on a bill by the Mississippi Legislature that gave the OK for electric cooperatives in the state to provide broadband internet service.
The Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act, however, was just the first step. The co-ops must now find ways to fund such projects.
On Thursday, officials with several agencies including USDA Rural Development, the Appalachian Regional Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration told area co-op leaders that money in the form of grants and loans is available for them to tap into.
All told, some $1.25 billion is up for grabs, although that amount is available nationwide, so co-ops in all 50 states can compete for the money.
But the first step is for the electric associations to conduct feasibility studies, looking into costs and return on investment.
Michael Callahan, CEO of Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi, said getting the co-ops to expand into internet service will be a “tough process.”
“We’re doing our due diligence,” he said. “We’re all looking at this, spending money on surveys, doing studies, talking to consultants ... we understand there’s a need. But we can’t escape the law of economics. We have to build a business plan that stands up to lenders loaning money and we can pay it back over time without putting our members at risk. That’s our primary purpose, to serve our electric customers. But I’m proud to say all 25 distribution companies in the state are looking at this.”
MEGAPOP, the nonprofit group formed in 2002 to help bring high-speed internet access to north Mississippi, helped put together Thursday’s meeting. It also gave $7,000 checks to each of the 14 electric co-ops in its coverage area to help pay for feasibility studies.
“There’s a need in our communities, and now it’s up to the them to do those studies and how to make it work with their business models,” said Morgan Baldwin, president of MEGAPOP. “From our standpoint, we want to be a resource for them to provide not just the grants, but also to have these agencies that have money so they can start looking at what they can get in grant money or loans to make it work.”
Baldwin said over the long term, it’s critical for the communities and electric co-ops to work together to bring broadband access to the areas that don’t have them. He said, however, that expectations have to be tempered somewhat because it will take time. There’s no timeline, but he’d like to see someone take the lead.
“I’d like to focus on one or two co-ops to do something soon and we help them out, so that once that happens, others will follow,” he said. “It’s like how electricity came to the area. We had one do it and we had others see how that was done and follow suit.”
Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, who’s been at the forefront of getting the legislation passed, said he was encouraged by the turnout and the information provided.
“The dollars are there – now it comes down to the will,” he said. “The key component now is for members of electric co-ops to let their co-ops know that they want to see this taken on. There’s enthusiasm at the federal level and at the local level, and that now has to translate to action on the local level.”