While 4 County Electric Power Association is open to entering the rural broadband arena, the cooperative remains cautious.
In a presentation at the Starkville Rotary Club meeting Monday, 4 County CEO and General Manager Brian Clark and Marketing and Public Relations Director Jon Turner discussed the cooperatives’ current plans for rural broadband, as well as other updates.
A law change in January of this year in the state Legislature opened rural broadband up to the state’s rural electric cooperatives, in line with measures taken by other states, including Alabama.
Clark said he was surprised at how quickly the law was changed, saying that he and other Mississippi co-op managers expected it to take place two or three years further down the line than it did.
“I think a lot of it is attributable to the fact that in the bipartisan world we live in today, this is something that both parties can agree on, especially because the state has no money (in it),” Clark said. “They don’t have to put any money in. They don’t fund it. They don’t have to deal with any regulatory issues in the side of the state. It was a win-win for both the Democratic and the Republican parties.”
He said 4 County was still weighing options for how to proceed. The law allows for cooperatives to add internet service to their business model under the condition that they do not increase their customers’ rates. It would not create a monopoly on internet service in the cooperative.
He also said the cost of adding fiber internet across the entire cooperative would likely be between $110 million and $120 million.
“It also says you have to have a business plan at your front end to serve every member in your footprint,” Clark said. “We are the largest cooperative in the northern part of Mississippi and we’re the fourth largest in the state of Mississippi."
“Serving all 49,000 meters and 39,000 members, it would be a feat, but the law says you have to have a plan to serve,” Clark added. “It doesn’t say you actually have to serve all of them. It just says initially, you have to have a plan to do something.”
Clark said although the cooperative has been providing electric power for 80 years, it was new to the high-speed internet arena.
“What about the FCC?” Clark asked. “What about fiber? What about service inside your house? Those are all things that we know nothing about that we’re learning about.”
He said 4 County had conducted two feasibility studies on rural internet with a third possible.
“The question remains, if we get into this business and 10 years down the road or five years down the road, and it doesn’t work, where’s the money going to come from,” Clark said.
He also said the cooperative was unsure what the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) would allow them to do in the area, but a memo had just arrived laying out its regulations.
“I have not had time to go through it yet,” Clark said. “Jon and I are going to TVA’s office right after this meeting to sit down and talk to them about what they need from us if we decide to do broadband.”
He said the cooperative had not made a yes or no decision on broadband, but was proceeding with caution. He said there would be an opportunity for the cooperative to receive some grant money through a reverse auction in the coming year. The funds could cover approximately 10% of the cost. He said the grants would be imperative to any such measure.
“My tone may sound cautious, and d it should be at $110-$120 million, but it’s not a no answer,” Clark said. “It’s not a yes answer, just cautious.”