Commerce Secretary Sees ‘Mississippi Miracle’ of Rural Broadband at Co-op

Ron Barnes, Coast Electric president and CEO, gives Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo a deep dive into the co-op’s broadband build, which currently includes about 1,000 miles of fiber and connections to 1,700 homes and businesses. (Photo By: Coast Electric)

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo got an up-close view of the “Mississippi miracle” when she visited an electric cooperative leading the charge for delivering the fastest broadband to the state’s most rural communities.

“Mississippi is one of the poorest states for a broadband buildout—especially its rural areas—but in three to four years it will be an entire gigabit state, really because of cooperatives,” said Ron Barnes, president and CEO of Coast Electric Power Association based in Kiln. “It really is akin to a miracle.”

Raimondo traveled to the Mississippi Gulf Coast on June 25 as the guest of Roger Wicker, the state’s senior senator and the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. She made a special request to see rural broadband development, and Coast Electric was ready to show her around.

Barnes and several co-op staff welcomed Raimondo and Wicker to the Picayune office, the current hub of broadband activity. CoastConnect launched in June 2020 and hooked up its first customer in November.

Since the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act of 2019, 18 of the state’s 25 electric distribution co-ops have committed to serve the unserved with symmetrical gigabit internet access. About $1 billion in COVID-19 relief funds to the state are helping these fiber networks get built.

Coast Electric has laid 1,000 miles of fiber and connected about 1,700 consumers. The six-phase, $150 million project will eventually serve 30,000 homes and businesses with 4,500 miles of fiber.

“Initially, we wanted to build out in six years. Now we’re on pace to build out in four years,” Barnes said. “Where we started and where we are in less than a year is part of the ‘Mississippi miracle.’ We are doing it so quickly and in the throes of a pandemic.”

Consumer-member Ashley Shuck told the secretary and the senator how the co-op’s reliable and affordable broadband has allowed her to return to her ancestral farm and raise her children while she works remotely.

“Her story resonated and, I think, the secretary could really understand the value of what we’re doing,” said Barnes.

He then guided Raimondo and Wicker on a short walk to a construction trailer where planning for the broadband project takes place. The walls are covered in maps of planned service areas, locations for equipment and other data.

Federal dollars from the CARES Act and the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund helped spur deployment, and the co-op also has received loans from CoBank.

Barnes hopes Raimondo relays to President Joe Biden how co-ops are delivering broadband to unserved areas like they did with electricity 80 years ago and the importance of more funding to reach remote communities.

“What makes an electric co-op special is we really, truly do care about serving our community,” he said. “We felt so honored and blessed to be able to tell our story of great success. We are getting the job done, but we still need financial support.”

Coast Electric is one of nearly 200 electric co-ops across 39 states involved in retail broadband solutions to help close the digital divide.

Cathy Cash is a staff writer for NRECA.