Pontotoc Electric Power Association has joined 17 other Mississippi electric cooperatives in vying for part of a $1.2 billion purse earmarked by the federal government for installing broadband service.

PEPA incoming director Frankie Moorman said that Michael Callahan, CEO of Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi, submitted the Rural Fiber Proposal to the Senate Technology and Energy Committees in Jackson on May 13. It asks for $150 million to serve the state’s most un-served and underserved residents.

“This is by no means a done-deal, but we’re excited about the possibility of getting this funding,” said Moorman, talking to the Pontotoc Progress on Monday.

According to Moorman, $75 million in state funds would be matched dollar-for-dollar with money from the CARES Act, or Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, passed by the U.S. Congress on March 21. Part of that money is earmarked for providing broadband, Moorman said.

In total, the project would “pass fiber,” by 45,000 underserved Mississippi households, Callahan said in a Tweet announcing the proposal.

As part of the proposal, Moorman worked with the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative to develop a plan for Pontotoc County. At a total project capital cost of $10.5 million, PEPA would install 306 fiber miles, passing 2,465 of Pontotoc’s most underserved homes, Moorman said. PEPA leaders have aggressively sought the help of legislators in hopes of securing the funding, Moorman added.

Community meeting

PEPA leadership along with citizens advocating strongly for broadband service came together again on Friday, talking about solutions.

“We had a very pleasant meeting and a really good exchange,” said Jackie Courson, who, along with fellow Pontotoc County resident Stanley Wise, sat down with incoming PEPA director, Frankie Moorman.

“We asked more about the three feasibility studies PEPA commissioned, and asked how we could help going forward,” said Courson. He referred to studies, conducted by the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative, FibeRise, and Irby, all of which suggested that broadband would cost too much and present a financial risk to the power company.

Courson and Wise, along with several other broadband advocates, previously voiced their disagreement to the board’s no vote at a meeting on May 6. Both PEPA leaders and vocal advocates came away from the meeting with a renewed commitment to work together and revisit the issue, Courson said, and the Friday meeting was part of that ongoing effort.

After the meeting, Courson shared a letter that he and other advocates addressed to local legislators, asking for help. Among other points, the letter points out the importance of broadband in education, saying that the service is the “first building block” in offering online education, and that it’s “absolutely required.”

Broadband is equally vital for medical services, like Telehealth, the letter goes on to say, and that offering those services to rural as well as urban households is essential.

In the letter, the authors specifically ask for seed money, perhaps from the CARES Act, in helping rural electric co-ops provide broadband. The co-ops are “part of the fabric of every community,” the letter says, and have a proven track-record of supplying efficient, affordable power.

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