by Steve Rogers
Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley made a splash in early 2018 when he and his two fellow PSC members completed a six-month blitz by getting the Legislature to approve a bill authorizing the state’s rural electric cooperatives to get into the broadband business.
During the PR campaign, Presley went county by county, almost community by community, talking to anyone and everyone who would listen about what high-speed Internet would mean to rural areas – more and better jobs, education, modern living.
Presley packaged it with a series of tests designed to illustrate just how poor service was in many areas, getting residents to conduct their own tests and sending in the results to demonstrate the disparities across the state.
The effort worked, inducing the Legislature to act within days of the start of the 2018 session.
Coupled with his professional, down-home aw-shucks approach, it was a tremendous PR campaign that made Presley even more of a household name across the region.
After a year monitoring the actions of electric co-ops, Presley went on the offensive earlier this year, hitting the road again to chastise the cooperatives for a lack of action. It was almost as if he couldn’t believe low-cost broadband wasn’t springing up like mushrooms in manure across the countryside.
And unlike his initial campaign where he approached everyone as partners in the long-term broadband goal, he has been highly critical of the utilities in most areas where he’s spoken. He’s gotten some mild traction, getting a few utility boards to at least approve resolutions supporting the goal, although none have actually bitten the million-dollar bullet yet.
In Monroe County, a group – Citizens for Broadband – is using Facebook to spread the message and generate support. With a series of community meetings across the county, the group is trying to pressure Monroe County Electric Power and its general manager Barry Rowland into becoming the first to do broadband.
The argument is some of the county’s smaller communities – Hamilton, Wren, Hatley, and Smithville – are perfect nests in which to hatch the idea. Tying in with a sister utility in neighboring Chickasaw County or Tombigbee Rural Electric across the state line which has gotten into broadband also has been suggested.
Monroe Power, like almost every other rural cooperative, has not been willing yet to sink in the millions it would take to get started and hope the payoff actually will come.
And it is millions. Studies done for 4-County Electric, another Presley target, have put the number at as much as $120 million at full build-out, with the break-even point taking years.
Monroe Power’s heart still is in rural electricity. Its financial responsibility to rural customers is hard to shake. After all, it’s those ratepayers who ultimately would be left holding the bag if the broadband bubble were to burst.
No one doubts Presley’s genuine, sincere passion for rural Mississippi. And when he runs for Congress or statewide office one of these days, it will serve him well.
But his current “take no prisoners” approach is short-sighted.
First, his efforts to get local electric customers to throw out their current board members in favor of new ones who might push the button on an expensive broadband investment is risky. Even long-time, do-nothing board members have loyal followings in their communities. A battle makes enemies, and those enemies can come back to haunt.
Second, the cooperatives should be his friends in this. They all want rural Mississippi to grow and succeed. But Presley must grasp the financial realities they face.
He might be better served to build partnerships that find ways to not only address their concerns but also other related challenges facing local governments, especially those small, under-funded ones that make up so much of the Mississippi landscape.
For instance, millions and millions of dollars collected as part of the $1 per month fee on cell phone contracts are diverted into a fund that is supposed to go back to the cell phone companies to promote infrastructure improvements. While the idea initially was useful, cell phone companies now are making billions of dollars and can well afford to pay a larger share of those upgrades.
Presley is familiar with those funds and the companies’ ability to pay based on his five-year effort to force the companies to erect towers to fill in cell phone service “dead zones” across the region.
While millions of dollars are sitting almost untouched, Emergency 911 districts across the area are struggling to stay abreast of equipment modernizations and personnel needs. For instance, Clay County taxpayers are having to chip in $250,000 this year just to run 911 because the fees collected on cell and land line phones aren’t keeping up with operational costs.
Lowndes and almost every other county face the same problem.
That doesn’t include another $50,000 Clay taxpayers are chipping in for new state-of-the-art 911 equipment during the next five years.
Few, if any things, are more important to most rural taxpayers than being able to reliably call 911 to get help.
Some of those millions sitting idly by waiting on cell phone companies would be better diverted to help counties pay for 911 equipment upgrades.
At the same time, some of those funds might be used as starter grants to help cooperatives move forward with broadband service.
Presley could lead the charge for needed changes in the law to make those things happen.
At the same time, he could encourage partnerships among cooperatives and broadband providers, partnerships that might make it financially and technologically advantageous for everyone to make the dream of rural broadband a reality.
Likewise, make it easier for utilities like 4-County and Columbus Light and Water to work together on broadband initiatives.
Presley might use his considerable popularity and his rural following to encourage state lawmakers to increase that cell phone fee slightly – say $1 a month – to help generate money both for 911 services and rural broadband. No one likes being accused of a tax increase, but $12 a year is hardly a tax increase, especially when it is actually designated for critical rural infrastructure.
When Presley, electric cooperatives, broadband supporters and city and county elected officials talk, they all are saying the same thing. The problem is they are saying it at each other rather than with each other.
Partners will do a whole lot more in reaching similar goals than adversaries.