Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Co-ops Top 100,000 High-Speed Internet Subscribers

Since 2020, 100,000 rural Mississippi residents have subscribed to and received reliable high-speed internet from 17 wholly-owned subsidiaries of electric cooperatives across the state.

In addition to surpassing the 100,000-subscriber milestone, the 17 electric cooperative subsidiaries have collectively built nearly 25,000 miles of fiber optical cable and invested more than $760 million for high-speed internet infrastructure.

North East Mississippi Electric Power Association is one of the 17 electric cooperatives that moved forward with broadband, offering NE SPARC. NE SPARC currently serves over 9,130 customers and continues to grow each day.

NE SPARC built 1,520 miles of primary fiber, 550 miles of secondary fiber and invested $50 million for the high-speed internet infrastructure.

“The collective efforts of our electric cooperatives’ subsidiaries will combine to be one of the largest economic development investments in our state’s history. The benefits of this infrastructure investment will impact Mississippians for decades to come,” Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi’s CEO Michael Callahan said. ECM, located in Ridgeland, is the statewide organization and the voice of electric cooperatives in Mississippi.

These 17 electric cooperatives began offering high-speed internet in 2020, so in just a short two-year time span, the cooperatives have created subsidiary organizations, secured funding, completed engineering design plans, constructed fiber lines, and are serving 100,000 rural residents with quality high-speed internet service.

The number of subscribers continues to grow every day.

“When we were planning, I told the board if anyone in the state can do this the people at North East Power can, but it wasn’t easy,” said Keith Hayward, CEO North East Mississippi Electric Power Association and NE SPARC. “Our members wanted broadband and fought for it. It was only 24 months ago we were announcing our plans and now we have fiber with light to every single location that wants it — all 28,000 of our locations across four counties.”

“In a global economy, Mississippians must have the opportunity to be connected to be successful. This is why the millions of dollars invested by the Legislature in broadband over the past several years are so important. We are grateful to our electric cooperatives and all providers who have joined with us in an effort to equip even the most rural areas of Mississippi with high-speed Internet access,” Lieutenant Governor Delbert Hosemann said.

In 2018, several Mississippi cooperative managers met in Tupelo, along with Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley and legislative officials, to learn about the efforts of electric cooperatives in neighboring states, offering high-speed internet services. In October of that same year, the ECM Board of Directors voted to seek legislation to allow electric cooperatives to offer internet services. In 2019, the Mississippi Legislature passed, and the governor signed the Broadband Enabling Act, which allowed electric cooperatives to offer high-speed internet through a subsidiary corporation.

“We knew there was a vast difference in the availability of broadband access between our rural and urban areas. Over time, access went from being a convenience to a necessity. As leaders in our communities, we saw that need and felt we had a responsibility and duty to explore the possibility of meeting that need for our members. Ultimately, we felt it was worth the risk,” Dixie Electric General Manager and DE Fastlink President Randy Smith said.

Smith was the board president for the ECM Board of Directors in 2018 when they voted to pursue the Broadband Enabling Act.

“As we approach the end of the calendar year, I want to applaud Mississippi’s 17 electric cooperatives that have reached 100,000 plus homes and businesses with their high-speed internet services. In 2019 I was proud to author HB 366, The Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act, which permitted the electric cooperatives statutory authority to provide internet services across Mississippi,” Mississippi House of Representative Speaker Philip Gunn said.

“Congratulations to our cooperatives for reaching 100,000 Mississippians with high-speed internet. I was proud to sign the legislation that helped us reach this milestone in this vital program,” former Gov. Phil Bryant said.

“Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi have managed to do in three years what many imagined would take generations. Working across the political aisle to pass the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act is one of my proudest moments in public office. Mississippi is leading the way in connecting rural communities to broadband just like we did in the 1930s with electricity. The fast, great work by our electric cooperatives will change forever the future of Mississippi communities and families,” Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley said.

“Offering high-speed internet seemed like a risky business venture because it is costly; however, after the meeting in Tupelo with Commissioner Presley, several of our cooperatives conducted feasibility studies. Although it was costly, the studies showed that for many of our cooperatives it would be beneficial for the members, who needed the service, and for the cooperatives,” Callahan explained. “The need in Mississippi for high-speed internet became painfully clear with the onset of the pandemic in 2020.”

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the need for high-speed internet for distance learning, telemedicine, and work-from-home opportunities. During the 2020 Legislative session, Chairman Scott Bounds of the House Public Utilities Committee and Chairman Joel Carter of the Senate Energy Committee worked to create and approve the COVID-19 Broadband Grant Program, providing $75 million in matching grant funds to 15 of the 17 cooperatives. The grant funding was made available through the CARES Act, which provided financial recovery to the state from the federal government for the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Broadband Grant Program funded pilot projects for the electric cooperatives’ subsidiaries to provide high-speed internet service to unserved or underserved areas of the state. Before this grant funding was made available, only four local electric cooperatives had board approval and were moving forward with internet projects.

Callahan explained that the “CARES Act funding helped initially to lower the financial risk for cooperatives and provided local electric cooperative boards a level of comfort to kickoff pilot projects in their service areas.”

The response to the pilot projects was favorable with greater numbers of Mississippians subscribing to the affordable internet service beyond what the feasibility studies estimated, allowing a comfort level among local board members to approve the subsidiary’s expansion across their service territory. By fall of 2022, five subsidiaries have completed fiber construction to their members.

“These two pieces of legislation have been game changers in providing and expanding broadband access to Mississippians, and we continue to champion for even greater access across our state,” Gunn said.

For many of the subsidiaries, the number of internet subscribers has surpassed, and in some areas, even doubled what the feasibility studies estimated, allowing the cost of the internet services to be affordable for Mississippians.

“I am grateful that the cooperatives have been able to take advantage of the opportunity (for CARES Act funding) that we provided through the Legislature, and I know those 100,000 Mississippians, many of whom had no access to the internet, are happy that the co-ops did so,” Director of the Public Utilities Staff Jim Beckett said.

Beckett was the Chair of the House Public Utilities Committee in 2019 when the Broadband Enabling Act passed.

For more information and links to the 17 electric cooperatives and their high-speed internet subsidiaries, visit CoopsConnectMS.com. For more information about NE SPARC, visit www.NESPARC.com.


Staff report

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