Efforts are being made throughout the state to make affordable, high-speed broadband internet available in rural areas but much of Union County is being left out.
Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley held a town hall meeting in New Albany Tuesday to provide updates on efforts to correct this situation and answer other questions.
“Broadband is the top issue in the state when we look at the needs of our people,” he said. “We really saw it in COVID when kids were sent home. Families were huddled around McDonald’s so children could do their homework.”
Presley has equated the need for widespread broadband to the need for rural electric power when the Tennessee Valley Authority was created.
He noted that at least 1,100 Union Countians have signed petitions seeking good broadband service.
Commercial suppliers only have incentive to furnish service where they can make the most money, but they also want to stop anyone else from cutting into their revenue, he said.
The situation was improved when the law changed to allow electric power co-operatives to sell internet service. However, three cities – New Albany, Holly Springs and Okolona – got left out because of a 1930s-era law.
For one thing, these three are the only municipalities in the state to own their own electric utility and sell service to a large rural area. The change in law only affected co-operatives, which these three are not.
For another, the old law allows cities to sell light, gas and water but not internet – at least according to an attorney general’s opinion on the grounds that the old law does not specifically address the internet (since it was bout 60 years before the internet was even created).
Presley said they are trying three ways to correct this situation, which punishes New Albany for going out of its way to serve more people years ago.
“Sen. Kathy Chism authored a local and private bill and Rep. Sam Creekmore authored a bill in the House to give the ability to New Albany to provide broadband,” he said. Neither bill got anywhere.
Presley has met with city officials and representatives of co-operatives surrounding the county. “They are interested in wanting to serve Union County,” he said.
And local county and city officials are willing to have them here failing a better alternative. “It’s a tens of millions of dollars investment but we’re making very good headway,” Presley said.
He told the approximately 50 people at the meeting there are three possible ways to get the needed rural service. “Next year they will try the local and private bills again,” he said. “The second is the infrastructure bill.” If that passes it would allow the city to sell broadband, he said.
The third is how to work with the surrounding co-operatives. The Pontotoc co-operative board voted – inexplicably to Presley – not to purse selling broadband, turning down $166 million.
However, Tombigbee Electric Power Association, Northeast Mississippi Electric Power Association and Tippah Electric Power Association are reportedly making good progress toward having their broadband infrastructure in place. He said Tombigbee employees are wiring 50 houses a day with their service.
“Eleven hundred people in Union County signed petitions wanting service,” he said. “But we can’t wait 10 months (when local and private bills would again be considered) with no action plan.”
Some COVID or American Rescue Plan funds may be available, he said. “I hope to get enough funding to incentivize co-ops to provide service.”
“You are literally in the digital desert and no way to move forward,” he said. “This is unacceptable.”
“This is a very doable project, but with several hurdles,” he said. “Hopefully, we are going to have some answers in the next six months.”
He said he will continue to aggressively pursue an answer.
“Letting this issue die is literally like passing on the future of this region,” he said. “Money is not going to be the problem, with so many federal funds. The issue is getting it targeted in the right place.”
Some alternate ways to provide internet service have been mentioned, but discarded.
“Fiber to the home is the way to go,” he said. “It’s like a 12-lane highway. Trees don’t affect it. Weather doesn’t affect it and it is pretty affordable.”
He said the co-ops that have service provide reliable 100-megabyte download and upload speeds and a customer can pay about $55 per month.
Some of those present asked about other alternatives.
In response to a question, he said a city cannot simply convert to a co-op at least in part because of the city property involved.
In response to another question, Presley said that a private groups could indeed get together to form their own co-operative but he did not recommend it. “The issue is time,” he said. “It’s a narrow window to get the money to make it doable.”
Until and unless some other solution is arrived upon, Presley said the more effective action for those needing the service is old-fashioned legwork. “Get petitions with signatures of people who say they want you to serve them,” he said.
Presley has been in a legal dispute with AT&T after subpoenaing some of their data. He contended that the company misled the FCC about the area they were serving, that people with addresses in the supposed area covered still were denied internet service. Or in some cases asked to pay substantial fees for have the service installed. One man present said he was asked by MaxxSouth to pay $19,000 to have cable extended 500 feet.
“AT&T is the worst, most awful customer service company I have dealt with in my career,” he said. “They just don’t care; they are too big.”
The company apparently used it money leverage to get a bill passed that will let them abandon landlines whenever they want, and they are abandoning DSL as well.
Presley referred to the saying, “lead, follow or get out of the way.” “If they are not going to serve these rural communities they need to get out of the way,” he said.
Although the meeting was primarily about broadband service, the commissioner also answered a barrage of questions about individual situations involving a need for water or natural gas service, and how to deal with spam and scam phone calls.
Presley said he is going to meet with city officials and surrounding utility officials again this Thursday to update them and see what can be worked out concerning making broadband available more in the county.
“We’re going to find a solution to this broadband thing,” he said.
Elected officials present included Sen. Kathy Chism, First District Supervisor Sam Taylor, Fourth District Supervisor Randy Owen and Myrtle mayor Micheal Canerdy. The only New Albany official was Ward One Alderman-elect Parks Smith. Mayor Tim Kent, Alderman-at-Large Keith Conlee, Ward Two Alderman-elect Drew Horn, Ward Three Alderman Kevin Dale White and Ward Four Alderman Will Tucker did not attend.Brandon Presley, broadband internet, electric co-ops, New Albany, Northeast Mississippi, Public Service Commission, Union County, utility companies