BUSINESS

Local electricity cooperative plans to offer fiber-optic internet service to 24,000 North Mississippians

Samantha Powell
Oxford Stories
sjpowell@go.olemiss.edu

A hundred years ago, innovative technology was just as important and fascinating to humans as it is today. The early 1900s brought about technological advances, such as the washing machine, the radio, the automobile, the assembly line, and a myriad of other devices.

Today, we rarely think about those inventions. We’re much more focused on which movie to stream, which podcast to listen to, or which selfie to post on Instagram. But to do any of these things, we need the internet.

North East Mississippi Electric Power Association has a new project in the works that will provide high-speed, fiber-optic internet service to 100 percent of its members. 

Randall Abel, NEMEPA manager of engineering and operations, said the Fiber-to-the-Home network will make broadband service available to everyone.

“We’re installing a FTTH network that will have the ability for the customer to access the internet from their home over a fiber-optic cable,” Abel said. “The fiber-optic cable will be run along North East member-owned power lines.”

Abel said they will have equipment in their office and in remote locations at substations that will send signals to customers. Wi-Fi routers would be installed in their homes.

“So it’s basically to provide very fast, high-quality, fiber-optic internet service to our customers,” Abel said.

This is a photo of a laptop used for an illustration about internet services.
This is a photo of a laptop used for an illustration about internet services.

Fiber-optic cables are made of thin strands of plastic or glass, which are called optical fibers. They transport information between locations using light-based technology. Electrical information is converted into a series of light pulses, which is then received by a photoelectric cell, wherein the light pulses are converted back into electrical information. 

Leaders of the cooperative plan to create an engineering model that will provide this service to all customers within the service territory, or approximately 24,000 people.

“At the end of the project, we don’t know exactly how many of our members would take service, but we certainly want to provide the opportunity to all of them,” said Abel, adding that this is made possible by the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act.

“Prior to January of this year, electric cooperatives could not engage in any business outside of providing electric service to their customers,” Abel said. “So we were forbidden by law from providing any other type of service, such as internet or gas or water. The law was changed in January to enable the electric service industry to branch out into internet.”

The change happened because many internet providers do not offer services to rural communities because it’s not economically feasible.

According to a Pew Research Center report, rural Americans have increasingly adopted digital technology over the past decade, but they generally remain less likely than urban or suburban adults to have home broadband or own a smartphone.

Around two-thirds of rural Americans (63%) say they have a broadband internet connection at home. This rose from about a third (35%) in 2007, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in early 2019.

The survey reports that rural residents go online less frequently than their urban and suburban counterparts.

“Roughly three-quarters (76%) of adults who live in rural communities say they use the internet on at least a daily basis, compared with more than eight-in-ten of those in suburban (86%) or urban (83%) areas,” the survey reports. “Meanwhile, 15% of rural adults say they never go online, compared with less than one-in-ten of those who live in urban communities (9%) and those who live in the suburbs (6%).”

According to Broadbandnow.com, Mississippi is ranked 46th on the list of internet connected states. There are 109 internet providers in Mississippi.

The site reports that there are 582,000 people in Mississippi without access to a wired connection capable of 25mbps download speeds.

There are 610,000 people in Mississippi who have access to only one wired provider, leaving them no options to switch.

Another 254,000 people in Mississippi don’t have any wired internet providers available where they live.

Abel said the projected cost of the FTTH network is between $45 and $50 million dollars.

“We intend to pay for that through long-term financing from our lender,” Abel said. “We’ve already applied for some grants, and we intend to apply for more this coming year. There will be no impact on electric rates. We will not raise electric rates to pay for this.”

Abel said the Broadband Enabling Act makes it unlawful for electric companies to raise electric rates to pay for broadband services. The project is currently in the beginning stages.

“We’re currently doing engineering modeling to figure out which areas of the system should be completed first,” he said. “So we’re at the engineering stage. We have to have a vote on Dec. 14 among our members to have the articles of incorporation changed.

“Our members of North East power need to vote and approve for us to do it. The law was changed down in Jackson. Our board supports it, but we feel that our membership should also vote upon it.”

Marlin Williams is manager of member services at NEMEPA.

“I do some PR and communications,” he said. “I do customer service and government relations… things like that.”

He said NEMEPA has been providing electrical services to residents of North Mississippi since 1936. Its territory encompasses all of Lafayette County and parts of Union, Pontotoc, Marshall, and Benton counties.

Abel said NEMEPA is a member-owned cooperative, which means each person who has electric services provided by the association pays a $10 membership fee and has voting rights within it.

“We have nine board members that come from different regions of our service territory, and those board members are voted on by the member owner,” said Abel, who believes the project, once approved, should take 3.5 to four years to complete. 

“We feel like our members in rural areas are very important not only to North East power, but to Mississippi as a whole,” he said. “So that’s why we’re choosing to do it. And we’re able to use the cooperative principle, the member-owned model, to where we feel like we can make a financial justification to provide service to those members.

“It’s imperative for our community, imperative for our schools, imperative for not only the growth of Lafayette County, but for our entire service area that adequate internet is available to them.”

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