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Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant Wednesday signed into the law the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act that allows electric cooperatives, such as Northcentral Electric Power Association of Olive Branch, to offer rural broadband internet to its customers.

It’s been a long push by state public service officials as well as local leaders of the power cooperative that serves the Olive Branch area of DeSoto County, as well as other cooperatives in the Magnolia State.

Wednesday morning, they finally saw the ink placed on paper for a legislative bill that will allow Northcentral Electric Power Association and other power cooperatives in Mississippi to offer broadband internet service to their customers.

The question now becomes how the new law will become reality for the thousands of customers who get their electric service from their local co-op, but may be stuck on dial-up or other means of accessing the World Wide Web.

A signing ceremony in the State Capitol in Jackson witnessed Gov. Phil Bryant sign the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act, also known as House Bill 366, into law.

Previously, Mississippi electric cooperatives, including Northcentral, were prevented from offering internet services through their facilities to their members through the legislation that allowed them to operate.

Now, they will be able to start a separate subsidiary to provide the service.

Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley had been vocally pushing to allow rural internet to take place and Gov. Bryant was quoted before signing the bill as saying the approval of the measure was an “example of what we can do when we work together.”

Wednesday’s signing and bill enactment into law doesn’t mean all of those people served by cooperatives will immediately be getting high-speed internet, however, but it does mean the cooperatives may start a process to offer it to their members as they choose to do so.

The bill that was passed was basically requested to be written by the cooperatives, who put together the measure that overwhelmingly passed in the Legislature.

In fact, there were only three votes against it, all of which came in the House vote that sent it to the Senate, where it passed unanimously.

Two of the “No” votes came from DeSoto County legislators, as District 40 Rep. Ashley Henley (R-Southaven) and District 6 Rep. Dana Criswell (R-Olive Branch) went on record against the bill.

Northcentral CEO/General Manager Kevin Doddridge explained in a recent podcast to the members that broadband has become more than just a elective service. In today’s internet-based society, it is a need that rural Mississippians have not been able to “log in” to.

“It’s something now where we want that constant connectivity because we’re doing so many different things,” Doddridge said. “In Mississippi we have potentially close to 700,000 Mississippians that don’t have access to the internet. We all know these days that if you don’t have a certain connect rate, there’s very little you can do online.”

As a state, Mississippi actually lags behind other states in the country for connectivity speeds, rural or urban. Recent data indicates that Mississippi ranked 46th in the country in high-speed connectivity as a state, while Iowa ranked number one.

“We’ve determined there is a need,” Doddridge said. “We’ve determined there are places where there is not high-speed internet and that is something that is of great concern and something that needs to be addressed.”

Doddridge said it would take millions of dollars to get all of his members access, but if done as demand desired, it was possible.

“Northcentral did a preliminary study two years ago to look at the demographics of our area, the size and infrastructure,” Doddridge said. “It was determined that if we wanted to get into the high-speed internet business, it was something that was very feasible to do.”

One of the next steps, said Doddridge, is to determine where there is demand and then set up a separate subsidiary as part of the cooperative.

“The electric cooperative and the broadband affiliate will be completely separate,” Doddridge said. “Being a regulated utility we cannot take member/ratepayer money and start putting it into a broadband entity. We’re not going to be able to blast fiber to everyone and hook them up. It will be done in increments.”

Bob Bakken is Staff Writer for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.

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