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Bill passes allowing electric cooperatives to offer internet

By JEFF AMYJanuary 23, 2019

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Northeast Mississippi resident John Henson is among the people who are hoping that a measure allowing the state’s electric cooperatives to offer high-speed internet service will bring improvements.

The Senate voted unanimously Wednesday for House Bill 366 , which had earlier passed the House, and Gov. Phil Bryant said in a statement that “I look forward to signing it at my earliest opportunity.”

The measure would allow Mississippi’s 25 electric cooperatives to form subsidiaries to offer broadband internet service, removing a ban on the member-owned utilities getting into other businesses.

Henson, who lives in a rural area near Guntown, said he’s been trying to get faster internet service on his rural road for nearly 20 years, having been turned down by AT&T and two cable companies that he asked to wire the area. Right now, he subscribes to a wireless provider, which he says is cheaper than relying on his cell phone.

“I’m thankful to have that, but I’d really like to have broadband,” Henson said. He said internet speeds provided by a cable company at his workplace in Tupelo are “just extraordinary” compared to what he gets at home.

He said he has talked to officials at Tupelo-based Tombigbee Electric Power Association, which provides his electricity, and is hopeful the cooperative will start providing internet to their nearly 800,000 customers statewide. Cooperatives wouldn’t be required to enter the internet business, current customers wouldn’t be required to buy service and cooperatives couldn’t cut off power if someone falls behind on their internet bill.

The measure requires a feasibility study and an annual audit. Cooperatives could invest money, loan money or guarantee loans to affiliates, but the bill says they can’t use revenue from electric sales to subsidize broadband.

The measure is sponsored by House Speaker Philip Gunn. It got the early-session push that the Clinton Republican gives to some of his priorities, aided by an April 29 deadline for cooperatives to apply for $200 million in U.S. Department of Agriculture grants to extend service to rural areas.

The USDA will take applications for another $200 million in loans and grants by May 29 and $200 million in low-interest loans by June 28. Senate Energy Committee Chairwoman Sally Doty, a Brookhaven Republican, said the deadline meant lawmakers needed to hurry, so interested cooperatives could submit applications. The law would take effect as soon as Bryant signs it.

Doty’s committee on Tuesday rejected an amendment that would have required cooperatives that enter the business to offer service to all members within 10 years. She said it would take time for a system to be built, citing the nearly 30 years that it took cooperatives to complete their electrical grids.

“We really need to manage expectations,” Doty said.

Henson said that besides himself, residents of his road who might be able to use faster internet include a pharmacist, a lawyer, several teachers, and parents who home-school their children.

“Hopefully it will get here in the next few years,” Henson said.

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Follow Jeff Amy at http://twitter.com/jeffamy .

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