‘We Will Save Lives’: Electric Co-op Offers Free Wi-Fi to First Responders 

Tombigbee CEO Scott Hendrix briefs a community group on how the co-op’s broadband arm will provide seamless backup Wi-Fi to first responders at no charge through its fiber network and the Calix SmartTown platform. (Photo Courtesy: Tombigbee) 

What started as an electric cooperative’s way to serve free Wi-Fi at high school football games for friends and neighbors in the stands will now not only change lives but save them.  

Tombigbee Fiber LLC, the broadband arm of Tupelo, Mississippi-based Tombigbee Electric Power Association, is using Calix SmartTown™ to pioneer automatic Wi-Fi throughout its seven-county service territory for all first responders at no charge. 

Without wasting critical minutes struggling for internet access, first responders will be able to contact a hospital immediately with details of a medical emergency that’s on the way or quickly call for backup when a crime situation escalates in a remote area.  

“Certainly, they have cellphones, but there are parts of rural Mississippi and other parts of this great country where those things just won’t work,” said Tombigbee CEO Scott Hendrix. “I would challenge any co-op that’s in the broadband business, if they have the potential of doing this, to do it. We want to make your life better and that’s the co-op spirit. I’m confident we will save lives.” 

The co-op this year began signing up nearly 70 organizations including rescue squads, law enforcement agencies, volunteer fire stations, game wardens, hospitals and others for the seamless Wi-Fi. Once signed up, their devices automatically log in wherever Tombigbee service is available. 

The co-op delivers broadband internet access and SmartTown connectivity to 23,000 homes and is installing about 250 SmartTown transmitters at volunteer fire departments, parks and gathering locations recommended by first responders.   

Tombigbee Fiber installed about 250 Calix SmartTown transmitters to work with its broadband network to give first responders free, automatic Wi-Fi across the co-op’s territory. (Photo Courtesy: Tombigbee) 

Hendrix said first responders expressed gratitude that the co-op would serve as “one more link in the chain to solve their communication problems at no cost.” 

“They all relayed that they knew of a spot where there was no connectivity and said this was going save lives,” he said. 

Tombigbee is the first customer of Calix to employ the telecommunications software developer’s platform as a free, community-wide secure network for emergency public services, “and they made it happen fast,” said Michael Weening, Calix president and CEO. “We are proud to be their partner in helping to make the Mississippi communities they have served for 90+ years a safer place to live.” 

The co-op seized upon the idea after providing free Wi-Fi at nine high school football fields on Friday nights.  

“It was a hit and made the grandmothers happy,” said Hendrix. “The people in the communities were amazed that they could get such a wonderful service, that they could communicate with their family and stream games. We did all this at no charge to the schools and that got us a little taste of what the community needed.” 

Tombigbee has invested more than $100 million to build its fiber broadband network and setting up the Wi-Fi network for first responders cost another $150,000, about what the co-op has spent on billboard campaigns, but with a great deal more impact, he said. 

“We are actually looking our members in the eyes and they’re saying thank you for this,” he said.  

“We want to impact the community with the same spirit we had in 1933 to turn the lights on in rural Mississippi and change rural America. This is our way to give back, our way to change the area and make it better.” 

Cathy Cash is a staff writer for NRECA.