Tombigbee Electric Power Association (TEPA) will become one of the first electric cooperatives in Mississippi to offer fast, reliable, affordable Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) connectivity to all of its 43,950 residential and commercial members. Made possible through the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act of 2019 (HB 366), TEPA anticipates having coverage to all of its members, mostly in Lee and Itawamba counties, in four years. TEPA recently announced that Conexon will design and manage construction of the network.
Change in Policy = Change in Possibilities
For more than 60 years, a Mississippi law had banned electric cooperatives from offering anything but electricity to their members. After pressure from the state Public Service Commission, Mississippi’s State Legislature passed HB 366 almost unanimously. The bipartisan legislation allows electric cooperatives to provide high-speed Internet access. Approximately two dozen electric cooperatives offer electric service in Mississippi. As a result, this single policy change has the potential to benefit roughly half of the state’s population.
When Governor Phil Bryant signed the bill into law in January 2019, he gave electric co-ops the lion's share of the credit for getting it through the legislature:
"This is a success for the Mississippi Legislature, for all those involved. If anyone wants to know how this bill got passed so quickly talk to the rural electric associations, because we do, and we listen to them."
Wheels in Motion
TEPA will be joining three other electric cooperatives planning to enter the retail broadband space at this time: Tallahatchie Valley EPA, Prentiss County EPA, and Alcorn County EPA. For some time now, TEPA has sought to determine if building out FTTH with smart grid capabilities in their service area is a feasible project. They described Conexon's contribution as "critical" in determining the potential of the project and the firm's continuing involvement in design and managing the construction.
The project is estimated to cost $95 million and will use smart grid technology. The first phase of the project, which will be divided into four phases, is expected to start in a few months, pending approval from board of directors.
“High-speed data capabilities are no longer a luxury but a necessity for the economic growth and continued viability of rural living,” said Bill Long, TEPA’s general manager. “With the recent changes in Mississippi legislation allowing co-ops to provide broadband, we view it as our role and responsibility to serve this need.”
Both Lee and Itawamba counties are located in northeast Mississippi. Lee County has a total population of 82,000 spanning over an area of 453 square miles. Just to the east lies Itawamba County with a population of 23,000 residents spanning over 540 square miles. Tupelo, the county seat of Lee County, is the seventh largest city in Mississippi and is considered the hub for commerce, industry, and culture in northeast Mississippi. The city has its own electric utility and Comcast offers cable Internet access with AT&T providing DSL in the city.
Powering Up a Better System
TEPA's fiber infrastructure will also integrate smart grid technology to enhance operations for their members. The sophisticated technology allows remote meter readings, which reduces costs by cutting manpower and vehicle expenses. Switching costs are also lower because the sensors can pinpoint damaged points in the lines so there's no need for crews to search manually. Down time is drastically reduced because, when or if there is a break, the system will automatically reroute power to cover the outtage area. Even members who choose not to suscribe to the FTTH service will benefit from the investment.
What's in a Name?
Tombigbee Electric Power Association in Mississippi is not connected to Tombigbee Electric Cooperative in Alabama. Their subsidiary, Freedom Fiber, provides FTTH in the areas near and around Huntsville, and has been offering affordable connectivity since 2017. Now that state law has changed, TEPA can put another feather in the broadband cap of the name "Tombigbee."
Learn more about how rural cooperatives are connecting folks in regions of America where large corporate Internet access companies don't invest in Internet network infrastructure. Check out our report Cooperatives Fiberize America: A Trusted Model for the Internet Era.
Image of the lit fiber optic cable by chaitaway, courtesy of Pixabay