Telecoms and Co-Ops Battle for Mississippi Broadband Funds

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Mississippi is expected to receive $162 million from the American Rescue Plan Act that can be used for rural broadband expansion. Large cable and telecom companies, plus rural electric cooperatives, are vying for the funds. Mississippi Today reported that representatives from AT&T and the co-ops are pleading their cases to the State Senate. 

According to Michael Callahan, CEO of the Electric Cooperatives Associations of Mississippi, “[the U.S.] Treasury has specified that its preference is for this money to go to cooperatives, non-profits, and government agencies for broadband. This money was tailor-made for co-ops.”  

On the flip side, Mayo Flynt, president of AT&T Mississippi, told lawmakers, “We do think this is a job for the private sector and not the government sector…We believe that a competitive process or [requests for proposals] is going to help you get the best bang for your buck. Competition is a good thing. We are in the game and are competing.”

Mississippi Today reported that in 2019, the state legislature passed a law allowing electric co-ops to provide internet service to expand broadband to poor, rural areas of the state. At the time, 40 percent of the state lacked access, and large telecoms weren’t expanding broadband “because it wasn’t profitable enough.” Since then, cable and telecom providers claim to have spent “millions in private funds” to expand service; they argue that they should get a fair shake at the government funds. 

The state has already received $495 million from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and $75 million from the first round of pandemic relief for broadband. According to the Northern District Public Service Commissioner (PSC) staff Director Sally Doty, most of these funds went to rural electric cooperatives, which have already laid “thousands of miles of fiber optics and hooked up thousands of households.”

“If there is any idea circulating that somehow companies like AT&T can gobble up this $162 million intended for cooperatives and nonprofits, I think that idea will be dead on arrival,” said Brandon Presley, Northern District PSC Commissioner. “Cooperatives and nonprofits who put people above profits are who these funds are designated for, and that’s who should get them under any plan sent in by the governor. To try and please the AT&Ts of the world with these funds will only delay broadband expansion. I would fight that tooth, nail, and claw.”

“There’s enough money flowing right now and coming to this state that we would be able to hook up fiber service to every Mississippi home,” added Presley.

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