Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley said there's now enough federal money to bring broadband fiber internet to every home in Mississippi.
Presley made his comments at the monthly Stennis Capitol Press Club Forum Monday. He said proper allocation of federal COVID-19 relief funds (the state will receive $1.8 billion in American Rescue Plan funds) and federal rural connection funds could get every household in the state connected with fiber optic cable that would help in education and in healthcare.
“We’ve got to build for the future and get our head out of the sand as a state and as policy leaders and say ‘what are we doing to affect the lives of these children coming up?’ And how in a modern world are we going to compete?” Presley said.
He said the state has gone from 49th worst connected state to the 42nd, but there is “plenty of work to do there.”
He also criticized AT&T, which has received more than $283 million dollars from the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Connection Fund to extend broadband service to 133,000 customers.
The PSC later asked the FCC for an audit of AT&T in 2020 and the company later responded with the required documents after the commission issued a subpoena.
“Some telecom companies have had a decade to go and a billion dollars to go and they’ve got three letters and an ‘and’ in their name and are still not there,” Presley said.
He praised the effort of non-profit electric power associations, also known as cooperatives, to bring broadband to their rural customers. Only seven of the 25 EPAs statewide have declined to provide internet service to their electrical customers. A bill was passed in the Legislature in 2019 to allow EPAs to provide the service.
Presley also said federal infrastructure funds should be spent on extending water service to 382,000 people in rural areas of the state who depend on wells, one-third of which Presley said are contaminated with bacteria.
He also said those funds should be used to get rid of lead and asbestos pipes for existing water associations.
The four-term Democratic PSC commissioner praised both Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and House Speaker Philip Gunn for their work on rural broadband and willingness to spend federal relief dollars on expanding broadband access.
“They’re willing to come to the table and look at issues that impact all Mississippians in a way that throws politics and the trash and asks the question what’s the right thing to do?” Presley said. He particularly praised the passage last year of Senate Bill 2789, which allowed the state’s two investor-owned utilities — Entergy and Mississippi Power — to use fiber optic cable laid for smart grid technology to be leased out to operators to help extend broadband service to more households.
“It’s a commonsense solution that makes not only for the future of the electric grid, but for the future of broadband deployment and to keep rates low,” Presley said.
He also said this technology helped Mississippi Power have minimal outages during Hurricane Ida, which made landfall in Louisiana before heading north to Mississippi.