TUPELO • Since the first of the year, companies that conduct economic feasibility studies in Mississippi have been swamped by requests from electric cooperatives.
They all want to know the same thing – Can we afford to run fiber optic cable to provide high-speed internet to our rural customers?
“We contracted with the National Rural Telecommunications Council to do a feasibility study,” said Chuck Howell, manager of the Pontotoc Electric Power Association. “We’re working to get them data and maps. They are swamped right now, so we will have to wait our turn.”
Tim Wigginton of the Tishomingo County EPA agreed. The cooperative commissioned a study months ago and is still waiting for the initial results.
In January, the Mississippi Legislature passed a law that for the first time allows the state’s electric power associations to also provide internet services. The legislation has been hailed as a game-changing opportunity to serve rural customers with the high-speed internet they have lacked. Now, the cooperatives must determine whether they have the viability to offer such services.
All 12 of the electric cooperatives in the Daily Journal coverage area have taken at least the initial steps of looking into the matter. Some already have three studies under their belts and are currently working on a business plan to start the next step.
The Prentiss County EPA falls in that category. Three studies show it will cost them about $25 million. To make sure they are not biting off more than their members can chew, officials have been visiting other cooperatives in Alabama and Tennessee that are already operating internet systems.
“We are trying to get a better idea of all the things that might pop up unexpectedly,” said general manager Ronny Rowland. “When getting into something this big, we want to make sure that it is a sound investment, and we know what problems might be.
“We’ve got a grasp on the total amount of money. Now, we are looking into the legal side, operations and how to construct and maintain the fiber network.”
While the ultimate goal would be to provide ultra high-speed internet to everyone, the most rural customers will have to wait longer. For a business plan to be fiscally feasible, work has to begin in cities where denser populations allow more customers to hook onto the system and provide the working capital that allows it to spread to more far-flung areas.
Another thing the feasibility studies look at is current internet in the region and potential demand. If the existing private internet infrastructure is copper wire, then the faster speeds of fiber optic cable would be in demand. In areas where for-profit companies already have fiber, the margins will be thinner.
Northeast Mississippi EPA manager Keith Hayward said Max South, AT&T and C-Spire all serve the Oxford area. And there is already widespread coverage with fiber optic.
“We’ve got some subdivisions five miles outside the city that have fiber to the house,” Hayward said. “They are getting better service than downtown Oxford.
“Our goal is to get service to all of our members. We are not closing any doors (on possible partnerships with the existing for-profit companies). We are actively exploring ways to see if this will work. We are attacking it.”
North Central EPA, based in Olive Branch, is steadily moving toward providing rural internet. Even though the first study showed it was economically feasible, they are purposely taking things slow.
“We know we can get the funding, but we still have to be cautious,” said manager Kevin Doddridge. “We are moving forward in a deliberate and responsible manner.”
While most cooperatives are moving forward or waiting on initial study results, one cooperative has already decided to just say “no.” The feasibility study for the Houston-based Natchez Trace EPA estimated the internet project would cost half of what the cooperative is worth.