Mississippi’s rural residents are one step closer to having better access to high speed internet after Mississippi lawmakers pushed forward with a measure that would allow the state’s electric cooperatives to offer the service.
On Tuesday, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn introduced House Bill 366, also called the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act. The House voted 115-3 to approve the measure, sending it to the Senate for more debate. The proposed law would allow Mississippi’s 25 electric cooperatives to form subsidiaries to offer broadband internet service. They’re currently prohibited from doing so by law.
“Mississippi Farm Bureau is extremely grateful to the House for passing this bill,” Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation President Mike McCormick said. “We appreciate the efforts of Speaker Philip Gunn, Chairman of Public Utilities Jim Beckett, and Rep. Scott Bounds for their leadership on the bill.”
Access to rural broadband technology is imperative for Mississippi’s farmers and ranchers to operate their equipment and manage their farms, McCormick said.
Legislative supporters said the bill would provide an opportunity for the state’s many rural residents to fully participate in an economy and society that assumes people have good digital access, although they warned it would take time for service to become widespread.
“They are being penalized now today because they chose to live in Mississippi in the country,” Rep. Tommy Reynolds said.
House leaders held pre-session talks to try to smooth out concerns of private companies that offer internet service and landowners. That resulted in a bill that says cooperatives wouldn’t be required to offer internet service and couldn’t use electrical revenues to prop up their internet subsidiary. Cooperative members couldn’t be required to buy internet service and cooperatives couldn’t cut off power if someone’s behind on their internet bill.
The proposal requires a feasibility study and an annual audit and does allow cooperatives to invest money, loan money or guarantee loans to their affiliates. Cooperatives could apply for hundreds of millions in grants and loans offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to finance rural broadband if the measure passes.