August 25, 2018 10:02:13 PM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
In 1935, in the back room of McPeters Furniture store in Corinth, a handful of residents devised a plan that reshaped rural America.
Up until then, electricity was almost exclusively a benefit of living in cities and the big city utility companies showed no interest in absorbing the cost of extending electricity to sparsely-populated areas.
Recognizing that fact, the handful of folks in the Corinth furniture store took matters into their own hands, forming the Alcorn County Electric Cooperative, the first electric co-op in the nation. It became the model used by President Franklin Roosevelt for the Rural Electrification Administration, a New Deal program that brought electricity to millions of Americans living in small towns and villages across the nation.
Today, there are 900 electric cooperatives in 47 states, providing electricity over three-quarters of the nation's land mass.
For Brandon Presley, public service commissioner for the northern district of Mississippi, the story of that first electric co-op is not merely an interesting historical footnote. It's a solution to a problem he feels is no less critical to the future of rural Mississippi than electric service was back then.
"Mississippi is 49th in the nation in access to high-speed internet service," Presley said. "Thirty-six percent of our people don't have adequate service. Seventy percent have some sort of access to broad-band, but that also includes expensive options like satellites. To say you have coverage doesn't mean you have coverage that is affordable. Many internet providers refuse to serve rural areas. They will tell you, 'Not only are we not serving your area, we have no plans to service your area.'
"So we want to do for internet service what we did for electricity 83 years ago," he said. "That is, allow our electric cooperatives to do what's happening four miles across from the Mississippi line in Hamilton, Alabama, (with the) Tombigbee Electric Power Cooperative."
The Alabama model
Steve Foshee, president and CEO of Tombigee Electric Cooperative in Hamilton said his board began looking at the possibility of providing broad-band internet service to its customers in 2007. Unable to get grant money to support that effort, the plan was put on hold until February 2017, when the board voted to borrow $16 million to begin a five-phase plan to bring fiber-optic internet service to its customers.
The decision, Foshee said, wasn't just an economic decision. It was a moral imperative.
"Rural America was hurting in the 1930s," Foshee said. "It's hurting in the 21st Century. We're seeing the loss of jobs, people moving way because the jobs that remain don't pay much. Rural hospitals are going out of business. Rural America is under a major attack and we felt we had a moral obligation to do something. Our company was born to face this kind of challenge and we have the perfect vehicle to address it. We're used to dealing with rural customers. We own the poles. We're in the wire business already. We have everything we need."
With one phase completed, TEC has provided 2,500 of its customers with broadband service, with prices ranging from $49.95 (100 Mpbs) to $79.97 (1 Gig). Foshee said he expects the cooperative to provide internet service to up to 25,000 by the time the $38 million project is completed in four years.
Foshee said the cooperative's foray into internet service was not based on a desire to diversify its products.
"Yes, we are an electric cooperative," he said. "But under that, we have four key areas that we believe are part of that mission: Economic development, education, quality of life and e-medicine. We have challenges in all four of those areas and you can't address any of them without broadband at an affordable price. You can't create jobs or open remote businesses without it. My argument is that broadband is just like electricity was in the 1930s: You have to have it."
State law is an obstacle in Mississippi
What Foshee is doing in Alabama caught Presley's attention.
"Alabama has the right idea," Presley said. "I'm convinced this is the only way you are going to solve this problem. If somebody has a better idea, they haven't stepped up yet.
"What I am saying is don't tell the people in rural Mississippi who I represent that they have to wait around until somebody behind some mahogany desk in Atlanta, Georgia, decides that little ol' Mississippi can have a little broadband," he added. "Right now, you'll get internet service when they decide you can have it. My point is we should get it when we decide we want it."
But right now, state law stands in the way of that. Mississippi Code Section 77-05-205 states that electric cooperatives may only provide electricity to their members.
"It's a horse-and-buggy law put in place in 1942," Presley said. "I can't find another state that has a law like it. I can see why, too. It's a stupid law. It essentially says members of electric cooperatives who own the co-ops, own the poles, own the wires, own the trucks cannot use those same poles and wires to provide themselves with internet service if they choose to."
Presley said $200 million in federal grants have been set aside to provide internet service in Mississippi.
"The money is just sitting there," he said. "We're missing a great opportunity because of this law."
In June, Presley brought 46 state legislators with him for a tour to Hamilton, Alabama, where Foshee explained his co-op's internet project.
"In September, the statewide cooperative association is going to look at legislation and we have several bills pre-filed that would allow cooperatives to provide internet if their members choose to do it," Presley said. "My understanding is that there is wide-spread support to change the law."
Presley said that 20 of the state's 25 service-providing cooperatives are conducting feasibility studies for providing internet service to their customers. Cooperatives provide service to 55 percent of Mississippians.
Among those are 4-County Electric Power.
"We are obviously interested in anything that benefits our members," said Jon Turner, manager of marketing and public relations for 4-County. "To that point, once this idea bubbled up, we started a broadband feasibility study to look into the possibilities and opportunities.
"We don't have any great urge to get into the internet business," he added. "Our first and foremost job is delivering safe, reliable and affordable electric service. But we also understand that there's a need and we're in a unique position to facilitate that service to our members. We are certainly on board with the intent, but we're doing the due diligence or members expect from us."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]