House passes rural broadband bill

This article originally appeared on DeSoto Times-Tribuneby Bob Bakken.

The Mississippi House of Representatives has passed the first step toward allowing rural Mississippians to be able to have access to high-speed internet service through their local power cooperatives.

The Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act passed the House on a 115-3 vote and is headed to the state Senate for consideration.

It has been known for some time that people who live outside the urban areas of the Magnolia State have had difficulty, if not being able to have at all, access to high-speed internet service to their home locations.

“We recognized years ago there was a broadband gap, there was a rural-urban gap,” said Northcentral Electric Power Association General Manager Kevin Doddridge. “Electric coops have been installing fiber for years for connectivity to our substations, for metering purposes, voltage control, all types of things.”

Doddridge said his cooperative had reviewed the idea of providing high-speed internet nearly two years ago but quickly found a road block in its way.

“Northcentral thought about this and did a really high-elevated study back in the Spring of 2017 and it showed us that we did have some connectivity issues in the area and that it was possible,” Doddridge pointed out. “We realized that the enabling legislation creating electric cooperatives specifically held us to the distribution of electric power. Anybody could get into the telecommunications business but our state legislation prohibited us.”

About the same time, said Doddridge, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves came to the power cooperatives and asked them to help write a bill to give them the opportunity to offer internet service through their fiber lines if they chose to do so.

“We came together and created a bill that would allow us, if we chose to, to set up a telecom affiliate, a completely separate entity and use that for the purpose of getting into the high-speed internet business,” said Doddridge.

He added Northcentral is poised to begin the process to offer the service as soon as possible, if the enabling legislation is passed in the Senate and signed by Gov. Phil Bryant.

“I’ve told some people the first step that Northcentral will take will be to start setting up our affiliate and whatever legal action has to be done by law, articles of incorporation, start that process as soon as possible, so we can start applying for some of the most-recent reconnect funds,” he said. “We’re looking at utilizing the 80 miles of fiber that we will have installed this spring and just see if we can pick up some customers, pick up a little revenue and put it right back into the system. We are not asking for a single nickel. We are just asking for permission.”

Northern Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley has been championing the rural high-speed internet issue for a number of years.

“This is a historic step to help the citizens of Mississippi,” Presley said in a statement. “The House has worked in a bipartisan way to change the law and that change will help shape the future of our state for generations to come.”

Doddridge acknowledged the bipartisan tone of House members in passing the legislation.

“I’ve got to admit, from my observation, it involved Democrats and Republicans working together and that is something I have not seen in Jackson in quite some time,” the Northcentral general manager said.

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