Mississippi Co-op Members and State Official Protest After Board of Directors Rejects Broadband Project

Early last year, Mississippi changed state law to allow electric cooperatives to offer Internet access in addition to electrical service. Since then, several co-ops have announced plans to connect member-owners with fiber optic networks. But despite their new legal authority, some cooperatives are deciding against broadband projects, and their members aren’t happy.

The Daily Journal reported last week on one co-op, Pontotoc Electric Power Association (PEPA), that has chosen not to invest in broadband at this time, citing high costs. PEPA's decision faces strong opposition from some of its members as well as a commissioner from the Mississippi Public Service Commission. Critics claim that cooperative leaders did not fully consider all of the possibilities, and they take issue with the board’s choice to hold the vote during a closed meeting without issuing public notice.

“We’re not adversarial but are advocating for letting the owners get back involved,” Jackie Courson, a PEPA member in favor of broadband, told the Daily Journal.

Critics Question Private Board Vote

The PEPA board decided against moving forward with a broadband network during a private meeting on April 2. Members of the cooperative only found out about the vote four days later, during a public board meeting. In that later meeting, the board limited public discussion on every topic, including the broadband vote, to two people with five minutes each.

As justification for their decision to give the broadband project a pass, PEPA leadership cited the high cost of building fiber infrastructure — estimated at up to $48 million for the northern Mississippi co-op. “One study said it would only be financially feasible after 22 years, and then just marginally. The other two said flat out it was not economically feasible,” PEPA General Manager Chuck Howell explained to the Daily Journal.

Regardless of their members’ enthusiasm, the PEPA board argued that the potential cost put the project out of reach for the co-op. “I realize there is a demand for it. I would have loved to do it, but financially it is too much. The money wasn’t there and there are too many unanswered questions,” President Larry Parker told the paper.

However, critics of the board’s decision believe that PEPA leaders are using the price of the project as an excuse to turn it down. “Some just see it as a nuisance,” said Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, who advocated for the 2019 state law change. “That is Model T thinking in a Tesla world. You have to view it as an investment in the future.”

The Daily Journal article detailed some of Presley’s and Courson’s concerns with the board’s decision process, including a “flawed” member survey and limited examination of alternative options. “There are lots of different business models that were not explored,” argued Courson.

What Now?

In response to the board’s rejection of broadband, dissatisfied PEPA members have taken to social media to discuss their concerns with the co-op's decision-making process and strategize next steps. One Facebook Group, Pontotoc Electric Power Association Members for Rural Broadband Internet, has nearly 2,000 followers, who post relevant news articles, complain about poor connectivity, and share their frustrations with PEPA’s inaction.

Some members are looking to neighboring electric co-ops that have decided to deploy broadband and may consider expanding to serve PEPA members in the future.  North East Mississippi EPA, Tallahatchie Valley EPA, and Tombigbee EPA, which border PEPA, are all currently planning fiber networks. “We hope to build a platform for our members first, but we will definitely take a look,” shared Keith Hayward, general manager of North East Mississippi EPA.

In the meantime, other PEPA members want to vote in pro-broadband board members to replace the three directors who will be up for reelection during the co-op’s annual meeting in the fall. Courson himself recently announced his candidacy for the PEPA board, but he still wants to take action on the issue before the election.

“I don’t want to wait until November to do something,” Courson told the Daily Journal. “We need to go ahead and address this issue now.”