In the past few days, thousands of my fellow PEPA owner/members have expressed tremendous disappointment in our PEPA leadership for saying NO to Broadband. Thousands of others in our sister Cooperatives in NE Mississippi are elated because their leadership said YES and will soon be stringing Broadband fiber throughout their systems. They have the hope of better educational opportunities, workforce training, telemedicine, teleconsutlting, improved property values, industry recruitment, small business opportunities, improved security systems, and whole host of other benefits made available through Broadband.
Over 18 months ago, the Mississippi Legislature passed one of the most profound pieces of legislation in recent history; “The Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act.” This act allowed our Electric Cooperatives to service its members with the electricity of the 21st Century, high speed fiber Broadband Internet. Since that momentous bill was passed, 15 Cooperatives have voted to provide this much needed service to its members. Nine of these Cooperatives voted in 2019 to provide high speed Broadband to all its members. Then a few weeks ago, the Mississippi Legislature, with the encouragement of public officials and citizens across this state, appropriated $75 million of grant funds from the CARES Act money to meet the rural broadband needs in our state. Since that time, 6 additional Cooperatives have decided to provide Broadband to their underserved and unserved members via this grant program. The 9 Cooperatives who already voted yes to Broadband in 2019 will also get this state grant money and will expedite their system build-out and provide Broadband service to their members sooner than originally planned.
The Pontotoc Electric Power Association is not a part of this visionary decision among our sister Cooperatives that have adopted this approach for help for their communities. After previously voting no to Broadband, PEPA indicated they would apply for these grant funds and voted to do so at their July 8 monthly meeting in Bruce. However, one week later at a special called board meeting, they decided not to apply for a $5.2 million Broadband grant and left it on the table. This grant money along with the proposed PEPA match would have built out a primary fiber infrastructure to three major grid legs in our system; 1. Longview area, 2. Hwy 41/Troy/Algoma, and 3. Randolph/Toccapola. These areas qualified for Broadband under the guidelines of the CARES grant.
Since the PEPA town hall meeting on January 30th this year when 600 members listened to PEPA’s first Broadband presentation, at least we had hope that this life and community altering opportunity might be adopted. After all, the very nature, mission, and purpose of a Cooperative is and has always been to remedy specific deficiencies in a specific market. At the time of the January 30 meeting, members vividly expressed we were already very deficient in Broadband service, and then along came the COVID pandemic. The demands of the COVID crisis coupled with the already deficient Broadband connectivity in our community only exacerbated the current and long term needs for Broadband. The Board still said no.
So, in my quest to find out why PEPA voted no on Broadband, I decided to find out why so many others voted yes to Broadband. I’ve talked to several EPA managers in NE Mississippi and other states to get their perspective on why they chose to offer fiber Broadband to their members. In all our discussions, 4 common themes became evident. One, the EPA Leadership engaged Educators, Health Professionals, Economic Developers, Industry Leaders, Real Estate Agents, Public Officials, and many other community and member stakeholders in their decision making process. Two, their focus was on the greater good of the members and their electrical grid. After all, broadband fiber is key to having a smart electrical grid for future needs and efficiency, so they viewed the investment as a benefit from the electrical upgrade as well as for Broadband to members. Three, the communication channels among all stakeholders were always open and transparent. Four, adoption and installation of a Broadband system is costly, labor intensive, and challenging. However, they all felt their Boards had confidence in their system and were united in deciding the benefits to its members and communities far outweighed the investment in the new system.
In spite of our disappointment, let’s not give up hope. The original purpose of a Cooperative, to remedy deficiencies for their members, is still viable and true today as seen by the actions of EPAs around us and across the country. If you believe Broadband is a keystone for our future sustainability and growth in Rural America, we must work together as owner/members to return our leadership to the principles held in high esteem by our founding leaders. Listen to your members; engage your community in the goals of the Cooperative; focus on current and future needs; and stand united with your members for a common goal. The consequences of inaction must not be neglected, ignored, or forgotten.