January 29, 2019 11:12:11 AM
Gov. Phil Bryant is expected to sign the Broadband Enabling Act into law by the end of the month. The law, which removes restrictions prohibiting electric power co-operatives in the state from providing internet service to its customers, has the potential to close what is called "the digital divide" like no other measure in our state's history.
When the nation's first electric co-op was formed (in Corinth, Mississippi), it changed the social and economic landscape of rural America, bringing citizens the electricity that would transform communities, create jobs and improve lives in innumerable ways.
The premise was simple: If for-profit electricity providers felt it was too costly to provide electricity to rural communities, those communities would do it themselves.
Today, there are 900 customer-owned electric cooperatives in the nation. In Mississippi, there are 25 co-ops, providing service to 1.8 million customers, which means a majority of Mississippians get their electricity from co-ops.
Today, a new divide - one every bit as critical to access to electricity was in the 1930s - has emerged. Access to reliable, affordable high-speed internet service is no longer a luxury. It's an essential.
For years, for-profit internet providers have declined to extend coverage to sparsely-populated rural areas and, often even those who do have access find that service unreliable or cost-prohibitive.
Now, thanks to technology that already exists and is being broadly adopted throughout the country, there is an opportunity to meet those needs.
Now, as it was in the 1930s with electricity, co-ops are uniquely positioned to fill this digital gap.
The emergence of fiber optic cables presently used to carry electricity to homes and businesses can easily accommodate high-speed internet service. Not all co-ops have made the move to fiber for electricity delivery, though.
At 4-County Electric Power Association, the word of the day is caution.
That's fine. 4-County officials estimate it will cost $120 million to bring fiber optics -- and with it high-speed internet service -- to its roughly 40,000 customers. Company officials express a variety of concerns: Is this a justifiable expense for its customers? What happens if other emerging technology makes internet through fiber optics obsolete? Will its customers sign up for the internet service they provide in sufficient numbers to make it financially viable?
All of these are good questions.
That these questions exist should not be an argument against taking this bold step, however.
Co-ops have a responsibility to provide their customers with all the information needed for them to make an informed decision. They also have a responsibility to listen to their customers. After all, in a co-op the customers are also the owners.
We believe the benefits could outweigh the costs and point to other areas in the country where co-ops are successfully providing high-speed internet through fiber optics.
No matter how the internet of the future evolves the fact remains: Fiber optics is the future of electric power delivery. That alone should be sufficient cause to proceed. That fiber-optics can play an important role in closing the digital divide should only be another important incentive to invest in the technology of the day.
In doing so, co-ops will once again fulfill their historic promise.
Almost 90 years ago, co-ops begin with the vow: "If you won't do it, we'll do it ourselves."
We believe that attitude should still persist today.
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