“We knew that we had a broadband problem in the state of Mississippi long before the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley. “This pandemic has forced us to really look that problem in the face and take real action on it.”
In nearly a moment’s notice businesspeople were working from home, students were doing schoolwork at home and the world began functioning more on a “tele-commuting” platform.
Presley said if anything, the pandemic exposed a great digital divide across the state of Mississippi. While other utilities did not suffer, internet which was now greatly needed, struggled. Presley said other than a handful of complaints most individuals did not lose access to vital utilities like water, gas and electricity.
“We’ve got to get the broadband gap filled in Mississippi and give people in rural communities the same quality of life of people in more populated areas,” said Presley.
Legislators are currently handling a few bills to address broadband expansion like SB 3946 which is part of the COVID-19 bills. Entitled the “COVID-19 Connectivity Act,” this bill would establish a grant program to be administered by the Public Utilities staff in order to expand broadband service to underserved areas. EPA’s would be eligible to apply for the grant dollars in order to expand service. This bill passed in the Senate and will now head to the House for consideration.
Current law does not allow for municipalities to provide broadband service, which is why legislation was passed in 2019 to give EPA’s the ability to do so. The Rural Broadband bill, HB 366, was compared to the creation of the TVA and Rural Electrification back in the 1930’s by Presley. Mississippi was one of the only states prior to this bill that prevented electric cooperatives from providing internet service.
Since that legislation was passed, 10 EPA’s have begun providing internet access across the state.
Presley believes that one of the reasons broadband has struggled to expand in the state is because of the larger internet providers like AT&T.
“Incumbent providers who simply do not want competition, it’s that simple. Many of these providers have had 20 years to go and expand into rural areas and they haven’t done it,” said Presley.
Presley said this year’s legislation is not only important for expanding broadband but also for using the already existing fiber optic networks that are in place currently to meet needs. He said lawmakers are looking at the CARES Act to see if there are funds that can help invest in a long-term solution to the problem.
When it comes to the role the Public Service Commission plays in economic development Presley said he argues they have one of the top roles in the state. They are charged with regulation of utilities and their impact on economic development cannot be understated.