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North East Power ‘cautiously optimistic’ about rural internet bill

North East Mississippi Electric Power Association is exploring the possibilities in providing internet to rural Lafayette County, but is proceeding with caution.

NEMEPA CEO Keith Hayward said the process of providing is difficult, as the company needs to discern what part of the population is unserved, what’s underserved and what the density is in the county.

The electric collaborative is in favor for broadband for everyone, and is in the infant stages of analyzing if it can and wants to provide internet for unserved areas.

“We’ll have to develop a full-scale plan where it will not affect our electric rates or our electric revenue,” Hayward said.

According to Hayward, NEMEPA has already been in contact with internet providers, but they need to interview different companies in order to find out who will eventually provide the service.

That process, of studying population densities and unserved areas, will take a while, but Hayward didn’t attach a time frame to it due to the bill’s current status.

The Mississippi State House of Representatives and Senate passed the bills, sending it to Governor Phil Bryant’s desk. He is expected to sign the bill.

If NEMEPA does end up offering internet services, it would create more competition among the Lafayette County and Oxford areas. Currently, AT&T and Maxx South are the main providers in Oxford.

According to an AT&T statement, AT&T has already invested nearly $700 million in our high-speed, wired and wireless networks across Mississippi.

“Investment in rural broadband is important to the success of communities across Mississippi,” AT&T said in a statement sent by a spokesman. “We appreciate the Legislature’s endeavor to balance the competitive nature of Mississippi’s broadband market with the effort to extend broadband to the remaining unserved areas of the state.”

Hayward believes Lafayette County is more suited to provide due to its density, and that possibility excites him. However, he’s worried that implementing internet service will affect electrical rates.

“If I can get the product out and pay for it, and make my member’s lives better, that excites me,” Hayward said. “But, it also worries me that those I’m serving broadband are not affecting the electric rates.”

As the bill inches closer to being passed into law, Hayward asks the public to be patient. As part of the bill, cooperatives can invest loan money and guarantee loans to affiliates. However, cooperatives can’t use revenue from electric sales to subsidize broadband.

“We’re going to take some time before we can figure out what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it,” Hayward said. “The membership is going to be the ultimate ones that are going to have to embrace it, and sign up for it and take it.”