By: Sid Salter
In 2019, Corona was a popular beach beer rather than a deadly respiratory virus and no Mississippian had really ever seriously contemplated a development in which public schools, community colleges and universities would be closed, and academic content would be delivered through online means.
But for years prior to 2019, rural Mississippians had fumed over molasses-slow internet speeds and the inability to shop, communicate, stream or enjoy full use of technology due to the lack of rural broadband.
Enter Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, a distant cousin of singer Elvis Presley and an unabashedly proud populist Democrat from Nettleton.
Presley orchestrated something just short of a political miracle. With Republicans firmly in control of the Mississippi House of Representatives, State Senate and the Governor’s Mansion, Presley seized on the pent-up frustration of rural Mississippians aggravated by the fact that they didn’t have strong and reliable internet access while their more urban neighbors and relatives had internet choices that were both less expensive and faster.
So potent was Presley’s rural broadband political army that when the idea went to the Mississippi House in the form of House Bill 366, Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn’s name was first on the list of legislative sponsors. The bill passed with virtually no opposition.
And why not? At that time, 60 percent of Mississippians living in rural areas lacked high speed internet access. That translated into some 368,000 Mississippians who don’t have access to broadband internet that meets the basic speed standard set by the Federal Communications Commission.
House Bill 366 allowed allows Mississippi’s member-owned electric power associations or EPAs to deliver broadband internet through a subsidiary. EPAs serve about half of the state’s population and had up until the 2019 legislation passed been blocked by a 1942 law from any business other than providing electric power.
But getting the bipartisan rural broadband bill passed in Mississippi was only a fraction of the battle. When the COVID-19 crisis hit rural Mississippi, many of the state’s EPAs were still struggling with the costs of the proposition. Another obstacle is the time and logistics necessary to move from the drawing board to reality.
The political battles between the EPAs and their customers have at times been contentious. But leaders of the EPAs have been unwilling to accept undue risks to their member-owners in the process of exploring federal grants and other funding sources in addition to local customers.
But Presley’s grassroots message about the need for rural broadband was without question strengthened by the COVID-19 online education component.
Presley recently told The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal newspaper in Tupelo: “We’re telling our people, and rightfully so, to stay home and stay off the roads and do not congregate. But then they’re between the devil and the deep blue sea because they’ve got children that have got to do their homework and people have to work and telecommute. And guess what? They’ve got to go somewhere. So, they congregate at McDonalds or at the WIFI hotspot at the library.”
He’s right. The lack of rural broadband drove many rural students last month to Mississippi State University Extension offices statewide, where they would utilize WIFI available in the parking lots.
If the COVID-19 crisis and the unintended consequences it spawned in education at all levels does not force Mississippi and the rest of rural America to confront the issue of rural broadband, perhaps nothing will. Parents forced essentially into homeschooling during the crisis had enough problems without the inability to have functional internet services.
How bad is the problem? The Tupelo newspaper, citing information gleaned from the broadbandnow.com website, reported this nugget: “The average internet speed in the state, according to the website, is 37.5 megabytes per second. Around 80 percent of Mississippians have access to internet speeds of 100 megabytes per second, a speed would allow a user to perform more activities. These statistics mean that roughly 595,000 Mississippians do not have access to an internet speed with 100 megabytes or more.”