A $16 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will boost efforts by a Mississippi electric cooperative to deliver fiber-optic broadband internet service to more than 2,000 homes, businesses and farms.
Batesville-based Tallahatchie Valley Electric Power Association is the first electric co-op to win funds from the ReConnect Program since the USDA received $100 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act passed by Congress in March.
TVIfiber, the co-op’s internet subsidiary, has built nearly 600 miles of its planned $60 million broadband network and has over 350 subscribers. The ReConnect grant will play a big role in getting this vital project completed in four years, co-op leaders said.
“This is a historic day for our cooperative and our member-owners, but it is also a great day for the state of Mississippi, and we are all very thankful for this opportunity,” said Brad Robison, CEO of TVEPA and TVIfiber.
“A TVEPA member at the end of a gravel road will soon have access to the same quality internet service of those in major metropolitan cities.”
Robison said the ReConnect grant will be combined with TVEPA’s $44 million investment to deploy fiber throughout the co-op’s 27,500-member service area. It will help connect 2,082 people, 331 farms, 32 businesses, a post office and six fire stations in six Northwest Mississippi counties, where the density averages six customers per mile.
“The grant will make a tremendous impact on installing accessible, reliable high-speed internet services to homes, farms and businesses in the unserved and underserved rural communities located in their service area,” said Michael Callahan, executive vice president and CEO of Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi in Ridgeland.
TVEPA also was among 15 co-ops to receive a grant from the Mississippi Electric Cooperatives Broadband COVID-19 Act last week. The state legislature created the $65 million program for co-ops earlier this year through funds from the CARES Act. Co-ops must match their awards and use the money to deliver high-speed internet access to unserved and underserved areas in Mississippi. TVEPA’s grant was $4 million. Other states are also looking at utilizing CARES Act funding to expand broadband access.
“We have been truly blessed to receive such overwhelming support for this project, and I think that support underscores just how critical broadband is for the people in our part of Mississippi,” said Robison.
TVEPA launched its broadband buildout last year shortly after the state of Mississippi lifted legal hurdles for electric co-ops to provide retail internet access. Despite the “massive undertaking,” Robison said, “we are committed to providing our members with this life-changing, state-of-the-art technology.”
Robison and Callahan thanked Mississippi members of Congress, including Republican Sens. Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith and Rep. Trent Kelly. “A project of this magnitude must have partners,” said Callahan.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue lauded the co-op’s effort to deliver internet access when and where it is most needed.
“The pandemic challenges have shown the need for connectivity even more as our children have been in remote learning,” Perdue said. “It all depends on the connectivity, but the fact is that 20 million Americans don’t have that privilege. … Thankfully, parts of Mississippi will have access to this thanks to the efforts of Tallahatchie Valley Electric Power Association and their fiber. We are excited that the ReConnect program is coming to Mississippi.”
The USDA created ReConnect in 2018 to build rural broadband with funds appropriated by Congress.
Cathy Cash is a staff writer at NRECA.