Mississippi Co-op Moving Forward on Fiber for Rural Members

Rural communities served by the North East Mississippi Electric Power Association (NEMEPA) should be enjoying high-quality Internet access from their co-op next year, if plans proceed as expected. The co-op Board of Directors voted on September 17th to move forward with plans to develop a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network to their entire service area.

Thank you, Legislature

According to their press release, the 2019 change in state law to relax restrictions on electric cooperatives was the factor that encouraged NEMEPA to aggressively pursue the possibilities. With strong support from the state Public Service Commission, state lawmakers embraced the change and passed HB 366, the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act. The bill removed decades-old language that required co-ops to use infrastructure only for delivery of electric service. Electric cooperatives will now allow be able to legally offer Internet access, a much-needed change for rural areas.

The cooperative worked with Conexon, the firm headed up by Randy Klindt and Jonathan Chambers, which has worked with numerous electric cooperatives like NEMEPA to design and develop broadband networks. 

NEMEPA has already commissioned two feasibility studies, which independently determined that the project will be viable as long as they can achieve a minimum take rate. A recent survey indicated that the need is so great in their region that members’ enthusiasm for their services will surpass the benchmark. NEMEPA plan to connect all 25,000 members within their 920-square-mile service area through a subsidiary.

In addition to gigabit connectivity, NEMEPA will upgrade their infrastructure to take advantage of smart grid capabilities to improve electrical distribution. In a letter from CEO Keith Howard posted on their Facebook page, NEMEPA states that people in the community have been excitedly asking questions about the timeline, and that the cooperative has recently begun the engineering and design phase. They hope to have the first phase of customers connected by the spring of 2020. NEMEPA will use Crowdfiber to determine where the most demand for services exist.

“Our members have clearly conveyed to us their need and desire for the advantages broadband services offer,” said Randall Abel, NEMEPA Manager [of] Engineering and Operations. “Just as we brought electricity here decades ago and made lives and communities better, we’re committed to doing that same thing with high-speed Internet capability and other broadband services.”

NEMEPA and Its Community

logo-NEMEPA.png The cooperative began lighting up rural farms in 1938; at that time, they served about 200 homes. Now, NEMEPA provides power to commercial and residential members in five counties. While their headquarters are in the city of Oxford, much of their service area is in the rural reaches of Lafayette county.

Oxford, home to the University of Mississippi, is also the county seat and home to about 24,000 people. The city has its own electric utility with Internet access from AT&T, Atlantic Broadband, and a patchwork of other providers. In addition to Oxford, the towns of Abbeville and Taylor join about six unincorporated communities as the only population centers in the county. Tupelo is east and Memphis, Tennessee, is northwest. The Internet access companies offering service in Oxford, however, appear to find the lack of population density in the rest of the county discouraging, choosing to focus their investments in the city.

The last step in the approval process will require members to vote in December in order to approve a change in the Articles of Incorporation.

Co-ops Getting the Job Done

Learn more about how rural cooperative are taking the initiative to connect people who have traditionally be ignored by the large corporate Internet access companies. Read our updated report, Cooperatives Fiberize Rural America: A Trusted Model for the Internet Era.

Image of Main Street in Tayler, Mississippi, by Fredlyfish4 [CC BY-SA 4.0]