Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant last week signed into law a bill allowing rural electric cooperatives to provide high-speed internet to their customers.
The new law, the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act, seeks to address the lack of access to high-speed broadband internet that plagues Mississippians in almost all rural parts of the state.
"This is a success for the Mississippi Legislature, for all those involved," Bryant said of House Bill 366 in a signing ceremony at the state Capitol. "If anyone wants to know how this bill got passed so quickly talk to the rural electric associations, because we do, and we listen to them."
The member-owned organizations — which serve roughly half the state's population — have been restricted from offering anything but electricity due to a 1942 law. Some 60 percent of rural Mississippians lack high-speed internet access, according to a 2017 report by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee.
The legislation was championed by Democratic Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley.
It allows the state's 25 electric cooperatives to offer rural broadband internet to their customers. Those cooperatives, all under the umbrella of the Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi organization, serve about 1.8 million Mississippians.
Lawmakers passed the bill unanimously in the Senate last week, after passing with just three nay votes in the House of Representatives.
Under the law, cooperatives are not required to offer broadband and can establish or allow a separate broadband provider to use their systems to provide service. The cooperatives can invest or use loans to cover the startup costs necessary to provide broadband, but cannot use electric sales revenue to subsidize it.
The law also prohibits electric cooperatives from requiring customers to purchase high-speed internet, and cooperatives are not allowed to disconnect electric service for customers who lapse on paying their internet bills.
The law appropriates no state funds for broadband infrastructure projects, but most electric cooperatives in the state are already applying for federal funds to begin broadband projects.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a program in December to offer $600 million in loans and grants to rural areas for investment in broadband infrastructure. The state's rural electric cooperatives, as well as existing internet service providers and cities and towns are all eligible to apply.
A 2018 study found that Mississippi ranks No. 49 in a list of states with the best internet coverage, ahead of only Montana.