By Alyssa Schnugg
While the need to increase availability to high-speed internet in rural areas has been an important goal of Mississippi leaders for some time, the implementation of distance learning in the Oxford and Lafayette County school districts due to COVID-19 has made the ability to connect to the internet more crucial than ever.
North East Mississippi Electrical Power Association was granted permission, along with other state electrical cooperatives to begin providing internet services in 2019; however, before that could happen North East Power had to first begin laying more than 50 miles of underground fiber-optic in its first phase.
Phase 1 started in March according to Keith Hayward, NEMEPA general manager and chief executive officer. As of Friday about 400 Lafayette County homes now have access to high-speed internet in the areas Lafayette Springs, Sisk Avenue in Oxford Commons and the Brittany Woods, The Highlands, Tuscan Hills and The Lakes subdivisions.
Fiber is currently being installed in College Hill, Sardis Lake, Oxford Commons, Wellsgate and other areas around the county; however, services are not yet available in those areas.
Construction to provide service to Sardis Lake is set for October and November of this year.
Other areas, like Taylor, Woodson Ridge and Waterford are in the second and third phase of the project.
Denton Gibbes, president of Rural Broadband First, a coalition of Internet Service providers, claims that North East Power is serving “affluent and densely populated areas first,” and pointed out Wellsgate as an example as it is already served by other high-speed internet providers.
“The irony here is that public funding and allowing electric utilities to provide broadband was sold on the basis of providing service to the un-served and providing the vehicle for distance learning and telehealth,” Gibbes said in a written statement.
Wellsgate is slated to possibly have services offered in February 2021.
North East Power was awarded $3,706,380 by the Mississippi Electric Cooperatives Broadband COVID-19 Act in July. The grant money is to be used to provide high-speed broadband internet service to unserved or underserved areas of rural Mississippi.
Hayward said the first 400 customers are located in “underserved areas;” however, the service has to eventually be provided to all NEMEPA members so contractors are working all over Lafayette County to install the necessary pipework.
“We do not want to wait to be out there digging up yards in February or April during the wettest time of the year,” Hayward said. “So we’ve got several contract crews in here burying underground fiber in some of these subdivisions. People in those subdivisions can go on our website and request service for when it becomes available. We need so many people in that region to say they want the service before we’ll build into that area, but we need to lay the underground fiber first.”