September 12, 2020 7:56:57 PM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
As of this week, it is not a question of if 4-County Electric Power Association will offer broadband internet service, but when.
More than 90 percent of the electric co-op's members who participated in the mail-in vote approved a change in 4-County's charter to offer broadband services, an option approved by the Mississippi Legislature last year. The co-op announced those results at its Tuesday board meeting.
Anticipating that its members would approve the change in its charter, 4-County accepted a $6 million matching grant that was part of the COVID-19 CARES Act. That program set aside $65 million to expand broadband access to rural areas in the state.
Brian Clark, 4-County's CEO, said the utility has set aside $7 million to begin work on three broadband pilot programs in parts of northern Noxubee, west Clay and Choctaw counties. At the end of the year, another $200 million in federal funds set aside for broadband expansion will be distributed among companies who plan to expand broadband services.
"We are really looking forward to getting started," said Clark, noting specific areas in the pilot program plan have yet to be determined. "The grant requirements are very specific about where we go and who we can serve. That being said, we do hope that these projects are the start to bringing broadband to all members."
Brandon Presley, Northern District commissioner for the Mississippi Public Service Commission, said 13 of the 15 electric co-ops in north Mississippi and 15 of the 25 co-ops in the state have now committed to providing broadband.
"When you think about it, Mississippi's co-ops led the way in providing electricity to rural America in the 1930s," Presley said. "Now, geographically, it looks like Mississippi is doing the same thing with broadband."
Clark said few details are known at this point, including cost of service and how long it will take to begin providing service. Clark stressed that only customers who sign up for the service will pay an extra fee associated with the service.
"The bottom line is that to make these projects work, we need people to sign up for service," Clark said. "So we will be marketing and communicating details as soon as we have them."
As of 2019, Mississippi ranked 49th in broadband service with 1-in-3 households having no access to broadband at all.
"Broadband access isn't a luxury anymore: It's a necessity," Presley said. "It touches almost every part of our lives now, from health care to education, and everything in between."
4-County serves more than 48,000 members in all or parts of nine east Mississippi counties -- including Lowndes, Oktibbeha, Clay, Noxubee, Monroe, Choctaw, Webster, Chickasaw and Winston counties.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]