Rural broadband internet service is a hot topic across the country and one that is a high priority for 4-County Directors and staff. Since the state legislature created a law last year paving the way for Mississippi’s electric cooperatives to provide internet service to their members, 4-County has been collecting data, studying the issue and conducting studies with some of the top broadband consulting companies in the broadband field. Since estimates show a broadband deployment would cost 4-County members in excess of $110 million dollars, moving judiciously is the right thing to do says CEO/General Manager Brian Clark. “A project of this size would be by far the largest and most expensive we’ve ever taken on in our 80 plus years of existence. We want to make sure that we have the best possible information and the most diligent planning to make this decision,” said Clark.
4-County has conducted three feasibility studies that estimate both project costs and the probability of success based on many factors. “We are using these studies to model different approaches to the project and come up with a range of potential scenarios,” Clark added. Now that these plans are complete, Clark says there are some important next steps coming up. “Over the next several weeks we will be meeting with the consultants who prepared the studies and getting into the real nuts and bolts. It’s a chance to make sure all our assumptions are what they need to be, that the details are correct so we are looking at as realistic a model as is possible,” said Clark.
At the same time, the cooperative is working on possible federal grant dollars for the project. The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) will make some $20 billion dollars available in a reverse auction later this year for the deployment of rural broadband across the country. “We are preparing for potentially joining the auction and pursuing the grant money. If we were able to get 10 to 15 percent or more of our project costs through grants, that would go a long way towards making the project a go,” Clark added. While 4-County does not have a timetable for making a decision, Clark feels that a methodical process is needed. “Despite what some folks would say, this project is not a guaranteed success. It is very important that we do everything we can to make sure that if we move forward, we put as little risk on 4-County and our members as is possible. That includes exploring other options such as partnerships with existing internet providers,” he said.
In the meantime, 4-County continues to solicit input from its members on the subject. “We’ve been updating our members through our Today in Mississippi magazine, through social media and through our Member Advisory Committee. We’ve also set up an email address specifically for broadband comments at email@example.com. We will continue to include and update the membership on the process.”
4-County serves some 49,000 meters in parts or all of nine counties in North Central Mississippi.