TUPELO • In what is being described as a historic moment on par with when Tombigbee Electric Power Association first offered electricity to rural areas, the member-owned electric power association announced Saturday that its board of directors voted to provide broadband internet to its servicing areas.
“This step is going to bring our community together with the same spirit we saw in the 1930s when our community came together to bring electricity to our rural farms and parts of the state, and this job is not done,” said Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley. “This job is not done until that last house at the end of that dirt road in the most rural community has access to the outside world through a world-class broadband system.”
The announcement came at Tombigbee’s annual meeting on Saturday. At a Thursday board meeting, all 15 board members voted unanimously to provide a fiber-to-the-home network to serve all 43,950 of the EPA’s co-op members.
“We believe that those choosing to live in our local communities should have the same resources and services as those in urban areas, and with today’s announcement our intentions are clear to provide that access,” Tombigbee EPA General Manager Bill Long said in a Saturday press release.
The project announcement comes six months after Gov. Phil Bryant signed the Mississippi Electric Power Association Law and Broadband Enabling Act of 2019.
Both Presley, a Democrat, and sate Sen. Chad McMahan, R-Guntown, described the legislation as a bipartisan effort with other elected officials to help bring modernization to rural Mississippi and improve the way-of-life for rural Mississippians.
“This was not about party. This was about people, and people need the internet, and I want to encourage every co-op across the state to embrace this technology and bring modernization to rural Mississippi,” McMahan said.
Through the act, electric power associations can provide broadband services through a subsidiary. Tombigbee is one of two electric power cooperatives to have announced plans to offer broadband service.
Friday, Tallahatchie Valley Electric Power Association became the first Mississippi electric cooperative to announce it was creating a separate company to offer high speed internet. It formed Tallahatchie Valley Internet Services, trade name TVI-Fiber, to offer gigabit speeds and expand access. Phase one will begin mid-September and the system buyout will take approximately 48 months.
“High-speed internet is imperative for advancement of business, economic development and tele-medicine. We will offer affordable, reliable broadband with lightning fast speeds and unlimited possibilities for homes and businesses to the areas served by TVEPA,” said TVEPA chief executive officer Brad Robinson in a press release.
North East Mississippi Electric Power Association also recently completed two fiber to the home feasibility studies and is now asking customers for survey participation to determine if a similar project is necessary.
Tombigbee EPA board member Buddy Palmer said Tombigbee’s goal was not to be first but be the best. He said that the power association will work in phases to provide service.
“I couldn’t be more excited. I feel like this is historic not only for education, not only for tele-health, tele-medicine, but also to improve the quality of life for our people,” Palmer said. “High speed internet service is the electricity of the twenty-first century, and it’s the dividing line for our communities. Those who have it grow. Those who don’t have it don’t.”
The first phase is projected to be a few months away, but the first stop will be a membership meeting on September 16, 2019, at 6 p.m. in Tombigbee’s Auburn Road offices.
At that meeting, members will be asked to vote to amend the association’s articles to proceed under the recent broadband enabling act. Members will also receive the ballots to vote by mail, Scott Hendrix, general counsel for Tombigbee Electric Power Association, informed attendees at the annual meeting.
Tombigbee EPA has already completed four independent feasibility studies to ensure it can provide fiber to the home at low prices and will contract with broadband consultant Conexon for the design and construction of the network. Broadband deployment is projected to proceed in four phases.
Hendrix emphasized that this was a rare opportunity for members to have access to high speed internet from a company that those members partially own rather than from an outside company.
“We’re going to offer world class, fiber-to-the-home service that is going to be at [high] speeds and affordable [and be] owned by Tombigbee, which is owned by its members,” Hendrix said.
The project is estimated to cost approximately $95 million and will use SmartGrid technology in an effort to upgrade service. While there is not an estimated timeline for the project yet, the plan is to provide fast and affordable internet at gigabit speeds.