Mississippi Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley says extending high-speed internet to what he terms forgotten rural areas of the state is needed for them is required for the state to move forward economically.
"We have a literal infrastructure crisis in rural Mississippi with the lack of high-speed internet service," Presley said. "We've got a lot of choices to make in this state on whether we get ahead of the curve and move that ball down the court or whether or not we choose to let this lack of infrastructure compound the problems in our state."
Presley made the remarks at the Stennis Capitol Press Forum Monday in Jackson. The former Nettleton mayor and self-described New Deal Democrat also dodged a question about whether he'd be running for re-election to the PSC or another higher office, such as governor or lieutenant governor.
He praised the efforts of Entergy, which teamed up with C Spire to extend an $11 million, 300-mile fiber-optic cable network to connect 15 counties with high-speed internet service using fiber laid by Entergy for its smart grid system. The three-commissioner PSC approved the project with an order issued on February 6.
"High-speed internet service is the electricity of the 21st century," Presley said. "If you live in rural Mississippi or any other part of our state and want to participate in the modern economy, you have to have connectivity to do that.
"Until we view provision of high-speed internet service the same way we did 100 years ago with electricity, we're not going to have a solid policy in this state of getting this infrastructure deployed and we're not going to have a solid policy of our rural communities are taken care of and not left out of the modern economy and modern-day lifestyle."
Presley's infrastructure push doesn't just end at high-speed internet, but broadband and natural gas as well.
"We have 10,000 miles of natural gas pipelines in this state and we have the lowest per-capita income of any state in the United States of America," Presley said. "One of the best ways, in my judgement, to help every average citizen, every senior citizen, every small business, industry, everybody in our state is if we provide as many energy choices as we can to everybody in the state as possible.
"We've been working hard to expand our natural gas infrastructure and give as many as practical the option to hook up to natural gas, if they want to. They won't have that choice if we don't get the infrastructure out there."
The Zap the Gap program, pioneered by Presley in 2008, provides a form for rural residents of north Mississippi to request high-speed internet, broadband and natural gas service be provided to their area.
One example was the expansion of natural gas lines from the city-owned New Albany Lights, Gas, and Water utility to 150 households in nearby Union and Marshall counties. The NALGW received a $600,000 federal community block grant and sold $3 million of 20-year bonds to help pay off the expansion.
The two-term commissioner also praised the commission's partnership with natural gas company Atmos Energy on a $25 million program to expand natural gas service to areas that were dependent on either electricity or propane. He said the goal was to hook up 1,000 households per year with natural gas.
Presley also talked about how the commission approved a settlement that ended the battle over the Kemper Project power plant and the commission's newest initiative, Hire Mississippi, which encourages the state's utilities to use local contractors for maintenance and operations.
Right now, he says, state firms are only getting 30 percent of more than $870 million in utility contracts and that needs to change. The PSC will set up a website that will go live on Thursday that will match utilities with in-state contractors for bidding purposes.