When it became clear in mid-March that the COVID-19 coronavirus would put normal life on hold, the Mississippi Public Service Commission halted all water, sewer, gas and electricity disconnections for unpaid utility bills.
But PSC could not include broadband internet services in the decision because it is not considered a utility service, Northern District Commissioner Brandon Presley told nearly 30 Starkville citizens in a Wednesday video conference hosted by the Greater Starkville Development Partnership.
“The federal posture is that it’s essentially a ‘luxury information service,'” Presley said. “I think that’s ridiculous in the year 2020, but that’s the way our laws and regulations are written right now.”
Presley was first elected to his position in 2007 and is also the president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, a nonprofit that represents public service commissioners nationwide.
Home internet access is more important than ever while the COVID-19 pandemic has forced school and most jobs into the home, but Mississippi often ranks 42nd or lower in studies showing each state’s levels of internet access and distribution, Presley said.
“It’s a shame and a disgrace that we’re asking people to social distance, stay off the highway and don’t go out, but they have to drive their children to McDonald’s or to a library to access internet service to do their homework, just to stay caught up in school,” he said. “We should come out of this pandemic with a hell-bent approach to connect every home, every business, every place in the state of Mississippi to a world-class broadband network.”
Utility providers and public officials should set a goal date to get this done, Presley said.
The halt on utility disconnections started March 14, partly in response to requests from the Mississippi State Department of Health and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. It will last until May 14 and could be extended, Presley said.
Starkville Utilities general manager Terry Kemp, who was in the audience of the video conference, said the department has “seen an uptick” in missed payments since the commission’s announcement. The amount of money customers owe after the payment deadlines is 12 percent higher than normal, and 27 percent of customers missing payments had not missed any before the pandemic, Kemp said.
‘Agree to disagree’
The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) through the Federal Communications Commission will make $20 billion available for rural utility providers to expand broadband access nationwide. $940 million of that money would come to Mississippi, Presley said.
4-County consultants say the co-op (which serves rural areas in all Golden Triangle counties) could receive between $11 million and $33 million from RDOF, Public Relations and Marketing Manager Jon Turner said during the conference call.
U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) is the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and therefore is the member of Congress with the most influence to get through the “bureaucratic red tape” that is preventing the money from being dispersed, Presley said.
“As we’re coming out of this (pandemic), we could have shovel-ready projects, ready to not only put people back to work but to solve one of the biggest things that we learned in this crisis was a huge problem for our people,” Presley said. “It is inexcusable not to release these dollars early. We have folks ready to work, and we’ve got folks in this state who are disconnected from the outside world, who are living in the digital divide.”
4-County has been under pressure to provide rural broadband access since the state Legislature passed a law last year allowing electric cooperatives to provide internet service. The co-op issued a press release on Feb. 28 saying three feasibility studies showed that one broadband project could cost $110 million.
4-County released a survey at the end of March designed to gauge customers’ opinions on the co-op investing in high-speed internet. It is currently due Friday, but Turner said 4-County will likely extend the deadline due to the pandemic.
Presley said the other side of the expenses of broadband expansion is “the cost to the people” of not having internet access, and he said co-ops should roll out expansion projects in phases.
Turner responded that only about 100 of the roughly 900 co-ops nationwide have done this and “none of them are mature enough to say this is a slam dunk.” Any perceived hesitation from 4-County is really an attempt at “due diligence,” he said.
“I appreciate your passion and we are looking at this hard, but I feel like you’re tilting the playing field when we’re being cautious with what’s probably the most expensive undertaking in the history of our co-op,” Turner said.
4-County has been looking for less expensive solutions, such as partnerships with internet providers, and Turner said this is all the more important in an economy “crushed” by the pandemic.
“How many of these folks out there are able to handle another bill, for $50 or $80 for the internet, when they can’t even afford the bills that they have right now?” Turner said.
Presley said he would “agree to disagree” with Turner about the pace of potential broadband expansion.
A group of Golden Triangle residents frustrated with the lack of rural broadband access formed a Facebook group in February called Golden Triangle Citizens for Broadband with the goal of putting more pressure on 4-County to expand access. The group had planned a public meeting on March 16 at the East Mississippi Community College campus in Mayhew, but it was canceled due to the pandemic.
Presley, local Realtors, home health providers, community leaders and representatives from 4-County were supposed to speak at the event.
Tess Vrbin was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.