PSC virtual Town Hall: rural broadband and more

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September 18th, 2020     Government & Politics

Brandon Presley, North Mississippi’s representative on the Mississippi Service Commission (PSC), presented a “virtual” version of the signature town-hall type meeting of which he is a master. He is always a well-informed, well-prepared provider of information. Tonight’s virtual version was no exception and over 700 folks dropped in to hear what he had to say.

Public Service Commission No-Call list and App

Presley began with a plug for the PSC’s no-call app, which is free to the public, and which makes reporting undesirable, illegal calls easy. More important than the fact that it is easy is the knowledge that complaints will be followed up.

Public Service Commission Hire Mississippi initiative

Next, the Hire Mississippi program was briefly discussed. The program is intended to see that, to the extent possible, monies spent by Mississippi utility companies go to Mississippi firms, rather than out of state. All Mississippi firms providing services, products, expertise, etc., that may be required by utility companies are urged to sign up with the program to receive notices of services being sought within the state. Since the Hire Mississippi program began in early 2019, a great deal of progress has been made in ensuring that Mississippians have a chance to benefit from contracts that utilities let for all types of services.

Expansion of rural broadband services in Mississippi

The majority of the evening was centered on the massive effort of Presley and the PSC to make broadband services available to Mississippians in unserved (and underserved) rural areas of the state.  The closing of schools due to COVID-19 brought an unexpected, immediate focus on this need. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) act has provided a great deal of funding support for this massive undertaking.

Early on in his comments, Presley addressed a question being heard frequently: Why do we see so much work by Coops being initiated in areas where customers are already being served by internet providers?

  • Presley explained that many Rural Electric Coops had committed to the broadband expansion before COVID-19 struck. Some were already proceeding under their own funding at the time. They generally began their work in areas where they already had customers near-by. Thus, they can “plug into the power supply” and pay for expansion to remote customers. They’d started at the more populated areas to make it possible to work out to more rural areas.
  • Then, in late June 2020, with COVID-19 rampant, the state of Mississippi appropriated 75million dollars of CARES funds (on a 1:1 match) to begin extending services only to unserved areas. Fifteen Rural Electric Coops took state funds aimed at getting high speed service only into rural areas. Providers must put in $1 of their own money for every dollar of state money they receive. This establishes a pool of 150 million dollars, which makes it possible to begin work in the most rural, unserved areas. The Coops are now, more or less, “working from both ends toward the middle.”
    • All of the CARES money must be spent by the end of the year, with lines “live” and ready to provide 100mbps service for upload and download.
    • Presley says this money is expected to bring service to 27,000 homes by the end of the year from CARES money, and to reach 45,000 homes by the end of next year with the Coops’ matching funds.

Presley states that the Rural Electric Coops are dedicated to bringing service to the last rural house on every road in Mississippi.  However, as he says, “The state did not get into this mess overnight, and it cannot get out of the mess overnight.”

More Federal rural broadband funds: Rural Digital Opportunity Fund

In October 2020, Phase I of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund begins a process that targets over six million homes and businesses in census blocks that are entirely unserved by voice and broadband. Those taking FCC funds must provide unserved areas with speeds of at least 25Mbps download and 3Mbps upload. This FCC directed program could provide up to 940 million dollars of federal funds for Mississippi.

Phase II of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will cover partially served locations and locations not funded in Phase I. This FCC program is funded at 20.4 billion dollars.

Questions and answers

To the question of whether satellite providers are eligible to provide broadband services:

  • Presley stated that, technically, satellite providers are eligible by federal rules, though their services are expensive and more easily interruptible.

To a question about whether city-owned utilities can provide rural broadband services to customers:

  • Presley specifically mentioned situations like Okolona, New Albany and Holly Springs where the  utility companies are municipally owned. He said that current laws must be changed to allow utility companies other than Rural Electric Coops to provide services. There was a bill last year which did not succeed; there is another bill in the legislature.

To a question about FCC broadband coverage maps:

  • Presley said that the maps are available on the FCC website, but that they are proven unreliable. They are based on information provided by providers – not from independent sources. He said that any area on an FCC map which is designated as “unserved” most likely is unserved. However, areas designated as “served” may not, in fact, have service. The PSC is still challenging maps.

To a question about suggestions for accomplishing “virtual learning” in unserved areas:

  • WIFI hotspots are a suggestion; contact the PSC for possible other help in certain situations, thought there are not any guarantees.

To a question about the expansion of natural gas service into new areas:

  • There has been some success in getting services expanded. Contact the PSC for specific information.

To a question about whether AT&T had received funds for broadband expansion:

  • AT&T received 283 million dollars of federal money to expand services, and claims to have accomplished the expansion. However, customers complain to the PSC that they are told the service is unavailable. AT&T had refused to  provide information to the PSC on the number of customers served. After being served with a subpoena for the numbers, AT&T finally agreed to provide the information.

To a question about whether Entergy is providing broadband:

  • Entergy is not itself providing broadband, but is in a cooperative arrangement with C-Spire that has served about 30,000 houses. As utility companies move to new service areas or to improve their services with new lines, etc., the PSC is urging that they “don’t pass a house for only one reason” if they can find a way to bring needed services to underserved areas.

Hire Mississippi tour begins in New Albany.

For further information: https://www.psc.ms.gov/

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