New law could help co-ops wire rural homes

STARKVILLE, Miss. (WCBI)- A bill that could expand high-speed internet access to thousands in Mississippi moves one step closer to becoming law.

On Wednesday, the Senate unanimously passed a House Bill giving electric cooperatives the option to provide high-speed internet to their customers.

“We’ve heard the term food deserts, but we got a number of areas and in the state that I would call them broadband deserts,” said Dr. Randy Loper, head of the Extension Center for Technology Outreach and Mississippi State University.

It’s no secret that a lack of broadband service is an issue plaguing many in the Magnolia State.

“Mississippi ranks 49th in the United States of America when it comes to connectivity to high-speed internet service, so this is a crisis in our state,” said Brandon Presley, Northern Public Service Commissioner.

However, that could change if House Bill 366 becomes law.

Currently, the state does not have this option because of an existing state law.

“It’s going to be difficult even for small businesses now to compete if they don’t have access to broadband, even if it’s as simple as ordering their wholesale products that they might turn around and sell through the brick and mortar store,” said Loper.

Dr. Loper has been an employee at MSU for three decades.

He believes if the Internet Bill becomes law not only will it have major impacts on rural areas and small businesses, but also farmers.

“More and more of the heavy equipment that we use on large scale farming requires internet connectivity to go back to the manufacturer for updates to the equipment, GPS technology, we will even see self driving tractors, and self driving farm equipment at some point, but as we move more and more to precision agriculture, the connectivity is an extremely important issue.”

“This bill allows for a cooperative to do it on their own as an affiliate, they could join other cooperatives and form their own affiliate with multiple companies, or they could lease their facilities out to someone else,” Presley explained. “It leaves that control up to local boards and those boards are elected by the members of the co-op who own the co-op.”

Presley has been fighting for a year to get this bill passed.

However, getting the bill signed into law is just one step, Presley said it’ll still take some time for the high-speed internet to get up and running.

“We didn’t get electricity to all areas in Mississippi overnight and we’re not going to get internet service overnight to every area,” Presley expressed. “The passage of thid bill and Governor Bryant’s signature opens that door and begins that process.”

Multiple electric co-ops are already showing interest in exercising this option.

The legislation now goes to Governor Phil Bryant’s desk who is expected to sign the bill.

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