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House votes to let co-ops offer rural internet

Both of Lincoln County’s representatives on Tuesday voted in favor of a measure that will allow the state’s electric cooperatives to offer high-speed internet.  HB 366 will now move to the Senate for more debate.

Reps. Becky Currie and Vince Mangold, both Republicans, voted for the bill that would allow Mississippi’s 25 electric cooperatives to form subsidiaries to offer broadband internet service. They are currently prohibited from doing so by state law.

The bill is sponsored by Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn of Clinton and has been championed by Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, a Democrat.

Cooperatives wouldn’t be required to go into the internet business and current customers wouldn’t be required to buy the service.

The bill allows cooperatives to invest money, loan money or guarantee loans to their affiliates, but says they can’t use revenue from electric sales to subsidize broadband.

Mangold said the Legislature would do its part — restrictions preventing electric co-ops from getting into the internet business will be removed by the end of the session, no matter what other agreements are struck. But that will not guarantee companies will make the investment needed, he said.

“We’re going to give them the opportunity to go do it, but whether you at the end of the road in the deep backwoods in Franklin, Lincoln or Lawrence counties is going to get it, that’s yet to be determined,” Mangold said. “I’ve talked to some of our electric co-ops around here, and they say, ‘Vince, we cannot afford to do it.’”

Sen. Sally Doty, chairwoman of the Senate Energy Committee, said only “three or four” of the state’s co-ops are willing to develop the infrastructure needed to offer broadband services right away.

“Once those three or four get up and running, I think the others will follow suit — but this isn’t a situation where it goes into law July 1 and you have internet Aug. 1,” she said. “It is so expensive, it will have to be done in phases. It’s going to take some time.”

Rural Mississippians often have few options when it comes to affordable, high-speed internet. In some parts of Southwest Mississippi, satellite internet is the only service available.