As you are probably aware, Governor Phil Bryant recently signed the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act into law, allowing Mississippi’s 25 electric cooperatives, including Singing River Electric, the ability to provide high speed internet service to the members. We have received several questions about what this means for Singing River Electric, so I wanted to explain a few things for you, our members.
We recognize that broadband connectivity is vital to the residents and communities of rural Mississippi and their future. Education and remote healthcare are just a couple of the areas that could benefit from an expansion of this service. So, when can Singing River Electric members connect to the internet highway via fiber optics? Next week? Next month? That seems to be the expectation of some members within our state and our service area. However, sometimes expectations and reality are miles apart. Let’s take a closer look.
There are obstacles, namely cost. If it were easy and inexpensive to do, the telecommunications companies would have already provided broadband service to rural areas, and the electric cooperatives would not need to get involved. But it’s not easy, nor is it inexpensive. Along with cost, Singing River Electric must also look at other questions such as: How many households would take the service, and at what monthly fee? What type of business structure do we form? Do we create a subsidiary or form a partnership? Will we need to hire additional employees and how many? Are there people available to hire with the necessary technical skills? These are just a few questions that will need to be addressed as we consider moving forward with broadband. Over the next several months or longer, electric cooperatives around the state will begin to conduct studies to answer these questions to determine if this venture makes economic sense for the cooperative and its members. Not every electric cooperative in the state will be able to offer broadband; they simply will not have enough households or businesses who will the take the service for it to be feasible.
What exactly does the new law do? It requires electric cooperatives to do at least one feasibility study to determine if broadband can be done without putting the electric cooperative at significant risk. It allows cooperatives to provide the service through several options. They may form subsidiaries, enter partnerships, or form other types of affiliates to provide broadband service. The law prohibits an electric cooperative from providing the service through the cooperative itself; it must be done through a separate company, maintaining separate books. A cooperative cannot use electric revenue to provide broadband service, again limiting the risk to the electric cooperative and its members. The law requires the cooperative, if it decides to provide broadband service, to commit to a plan making broadband available to all its members at some point. It does not require any electric cooperative to offer broadband and it prevents cooperatives from requiring a member to take the service.
What lies ahead for Singing River Electric and its members? We have conducted an initial feasibility study, and cost estimates are staggering. A survey of the membership will be conducted soon and depending on the outcome, a more detailed feasibility study may be performed. We will continue to closely research the possibility of providing broadband service as it may be one of the most important decisions the cooperative has ever made.
Singing River Electric’s first responsibility as an electric cooperative is to continue to provide quality electric service to the membership. Any decision we make will come after very careful consideration as we work to ensure that we do the right thing for our members and Singing River Electric.
General Manager and CEO
(*This CEO Column ran in the April "Today in Mississippi" member publication. Check your mail this week for your copy. You can also visit singingriver.com/my-sre-membership/today-in-mississippi/.)