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A worker with National OnDemand, Inc., Fiber Services, pulls flexible conduit from a spool that will run behind the houses located on Country Wood Cove off of Butler Road in Tupelo in 2020. Rural Mississippians with slow or nonexistent internet connections could get relief under two bills moving through the Legislature.

JACKSON Rural Mississippians with slow or nonexistent internet connections could get relief under two bills moving through the Legislature.

House Bill 942 would allow internet companies to lease out existing or planned “dark fiber” lines operated by Entergy and Mississippi Power to run the electric grid. The legislation easily passed Tuesday and follows a similar proposal, Senate Bill 2798, which cleared the opposing chamber last week.

“We need to have broadband in every home,” Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann told reporters last week.

Lawmakers from both chambers are now expected to negotiate on at least one key provision included in the House bill, which could limit how many communities would ultimately benefit and receive the faster internet.

“Dark fiber” refers to unused portions of fiber optic cables installed by power companies to connect various parts of their electric grids. But much of the Entergy and Mississippi Power cable capacity isn’t needed by the electric companies. Under the legislation, this “dark” portion of each individual cable could be leased out to an internet company and provide high-speed internet connections to homes and businesses.

“Every penny that is raised by leasing will go to reduce the amount ratepayers pay (for electricity),” Hosemann said.

The dark fiber leasing effort is just the latest of several steps in recent years to improve internet connections for rural Mississippians. The state has long suffered from some of the most limited coverage and slowest internet speeds in any state in the country.

Legislation passed in 2019 allowed member-owned electric utilities to start providing internet to their customers. Last year, lawmakers spent $75 million in federal coronavirus relief funds in grants for local internet projects – dollars that were matched by each recipient, creating a $150 million investment. And late last year, Mississippi internet projects were awarded $495 million from the federal government’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund – more than any state but California.

Rep. Scott Bounds, R-Philadelphia, said there is already significant interest from internet companies that want to lease fiber capacity from the electric utilities.

“I think Entergy has the (most) capability, because they basically run up the entire west side of the state, into DeSoto County, and come into the central part of the state, too, in Hinds County,” he told the Daily Journal.

Hosemann said that while Entergy has a major fiber line running from southwest Mississippi nearly to Memphis, Mississippi Power has one that runs from the Gulfport area to the Meridian area.

Officials noted there are other fiber lines owned by the companies that could be used for high-speed internet connections as well.

There is at least one key difference between the House and Senate bills that will need to be hashed out before the legislation is finalized.

The Senate bill would allow internet service providers lease fiber from the electric utilities anywhere, even if an internet company already offers service in the area. But the House legislation includes limits, saying a company could not lease fiber to serve an area that already has at least one high-speed internet provider.

Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, a Democrat from Nettleton, said this provision would effectively limit the number of communities that could get access to better internet. It would mean some homes would be unable to tap into fiber lines that run nearby, just because at least one internet company claims to offer a certain speed of internet in the area.

The legislation could help large swaths of the state, but not much of Northeast Mississippi, Presley said. That’s because most of Northeast Mississippi is served by small, member-owned electric groups and not Entergy or Mississippi Power, which don’t have major fiber lines running through the area.

But Presley noted several internet projects funded by last year’s CARES Act federal coronavirus relief funds are moving forward in Northeast Mississippi. Most of the grant money went to rural electric cooperatives. Statewide, those grants could help as many as 40,000 homes and businesses gain a high-speed internet connection, officials said last year.

Presley said Tombigbee Electric Cooperative has recently been hooking up about 25 homes a day to high-speed internet.

Luke Ramseth is a Jackson-based reporter covering the 2021 session of the Mississippi Legislature for the Daily Journal. Email him at lramseth@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @lramseth.

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