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Utility regulator seeks to let rural electrical cooperatives offer high speed internet

HAMILTON, Ala. (AP) — A Mississippi utility regulator is continuing his push to change state law to allow rural electric cooperative to provide high speed internet service.

Local news outlets report Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley traveled to Alabama last week with 46 Mississippi lawmakers and representatives of more than a dozen Mississippi electrical cooperatives. They were visiting Tombigbee Electric Cooperative of Hamilton, Alabama, to learn about the utility’s work in providing broadband service.

“Fourteen miles east of the Mississippi line, some of the fastest internet speeds in the US at some of the cheapest prices are being offered, in some of the most rural parts of Alabama. If they can do it in Alabama, we can do it in Mississippi,” Presley, a Democrat who represents the northern third of the state, tells WCBI-TV.

Tombigbee CEO Steve Foshee says the cooperative is spending $38 million over time to offer fast fiber-optic service to more than 70,000 residents. The cooperative began offering dialup service in 2000 and relied on a combination of private loans and a $3 million government grant for a pilot program that now serves 400 customers.

Foshee said the cooperative created Tombigbee Communications because large private providers shy away from the most rural areas. He likened the work to cooperatives’ original mission of extending electrical service beyond towns.

“That was what we were created for to start with, a quality of life issue,” Foshee said. “Our people need opportunity, they need jobs, income. We all need to work together to make this happen and cooperatives are the perfect model to make this happen.”

Mississippi law currently bans electrical cooperatives from offering internet service, but Presley, a Democrat representing the state’s northern district, says he expects lawmakers to consider dropping that ban in 2019.

“That has to be changed by the legislature first and foremost, and I think it will,” said Rep Steve Holland, a Plantersville Democrat. “Beyond that we’ve got to sell the co-ops on it. It’s going to be a heavy investment on the co-ops.”

Presley said a federal bill allocates $600 million for electric cooperatives and rural utilities to bring broadband to rural areas.

Jason Siefried, CEO of Taylorsville-based Southern Pine Electric, tells the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal that farmers served by his Mississippi cooperative could benefit.

“If a farmer can monitor a chicken coop remotely, it just increases the opportunities he has to keep bad things from happening like losing a houseful of chickens due to fans not working properly,” Siegfried said.

Foshee said fiber service costs $49.95 monthly for 100 megabytes and $79.95 monthly for 1 gigabyte in residential areas.

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