To say Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley is excited about the potential of expanding broadband internet access in rural Mississippi would be quite the understatement.
Presley, who represents the northern third of the state, sees the coming expansion of broadband internet access as having the potential to greatly change the economic outlook of rural Mississippi – particularly Northeast Mississippi where so many electric co-ops are receiving a tremendous infusion of state and federal dollars to bring high-speed internet to local residents and businesses.
Presley purposely chose Robins Field in Tupelo for a ceremony marking the official authorization of more than $91 million in federal subsidies going to local electric power cooperatives to provide rural areas with broadband internet access. The reason: It was the same spot President Franklin Roosevelt stood in 1934 when he recognized Tupelo as the first city to receive power through the Tennessee Valley Authority.
To Presley, broadband internet access will be as vital as electricity in the future. So much of our lives depends on internet connectivity, and Mississippi – especially rural areas – has lagged far behind much of the nation. BroadbandNow ranked Mississippi 42nd in the nation for connectivity, estimating that approximately 40% of the state lacks access to broadband internet.
That is quickly changing – in part due to Presley.
But Presley is not the only champion of expanding broadband internet into rural areas. State lawmakers in 2019 paved the way for electric co-ops to use their lines to provide broadband access. Then last year, led by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, the Legislature used $75 million in CARES Act funds to offer matching grants to electric co-ops to extend broadband access. That money had to be used by the end of last year, meaning it has already paid dividends in rural areas.
And the Biden administration is proposing additional federal funding as part its infrastructure package. This money would be used in much the same way as the moneys Presley just authorized, which were part of the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. Mississippi was the second largest recipient of RDOF dollars, behind only California.
Presley is quick to point out that Northeast Mississippi could become one of the largest, most connected rural geographic areas in the country thanks to what has happened in the past few years. And people across the country – from national media to economic development organizations to other electric co-ops – are taking notice.
The trick, however, is to keep pushing forward. We can’t let this opportunity pass us by. Electric co-ops must be diligent in using these funds to quickly and efficiently expand broadband internet access. Likewise, state and local leaders must continue to find creative ways to support the efforts of electric co-ops and other companies in their efforts.
What is happening is most certainly exciting. Just ask Presley.