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Morrow: Rural electric providers key to solving broadband issue

Officials from six area municipalities and several electric cooperatives met with Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow (D-Red Bay) and representatives from Tombigbee Rural Electric Cooperative last Wednesday morning to learn what the company is doing in Marion County with fiberoptic high-speed internet.

The goal, Morrow explained, is to craft a plan among all the entities to present to Tombigbee’s internet arm, freedomFIBER, that could bring affordable broadband internet to Franklin County and Tishomingo County, MS.

Tombigbee officials attended a public forum in Phil Campbell in October to answer questions and provide information to Franklin County residents interested in seeing a reliable broadband provider service the rural parts of the county.

FreedomFIBER is building a network of broadband internet in the cities of Hamilton and Winfield as part of a conditional $40,000,000 investment. FreedomFIBER plans to expand into the remainder of Marion County and Lamar County and the cities of Haleyville and Fayette next year.

Last Wednesday’s meeting, held in Hamilton, allowed representatives from the various cities the opportunity to ask questions and learn more about what is happening with Tombigbee Communications, LLC, which operates under the freedomFIBER name.

In order to bring broadband internet to less populated rural areas of Franklin and Tishomingo Counties, Morrow said they will have to follow the script of what was done with rural electric providers decades ago.

“Following the construction of the dams on the Tennessee River and the creation of TVA, the problem was how to get the electricity to remote rural families and businesses,” Morrow said. “The Rural Electric Cooperatives were created, and everyone received the electric service, even those customers at the very end of the road. It worked with electricity in the early 1900s, and it will work with affordable high-speed internet today.”

Buddy Wiltshire, mayor of Belmont, MS attended the meeting and liked what he heard, although he’s realistic about the timeframe in which any plan would develop.

“We’re going to have to have cooperation from a lot of different entities. Our local Tishomingo County Electric Power Association will have to be on board with this. I think they would be,” Wiltshire said. “It would have to be a team effort. I don’t think anything will happen as fast as anyone would like, but, yes, I think it is a definite possibility.”

What would be required, Morrow believes, is a package proposal whereby freedomFIBER would come into Russellville, Red Bay, Phil Campbell, Vina, Hodges, Belmont and Golden in order to create a subscriber base large enough to justify the infrastructure expense of expanding into the less populated rural areas.

“I taught economics, and there’s such a thing as economies of scale,” Morrow said. “If a larger number of people are there as potential customers, that adds to the attractiveness of the proposal. When you put in Belmont and Golden, Mississippi, with Red Bay, that’s a lot of potential customers.

“If you’re stringing broadband wire all the way to Red Bay, why not look at Belmont and Golden and all the businesses and people down there?”

While Belmont is served by MaxSouth and AT&T U-verse, there is no provider for the more remote outlying areas.

“There are a lot of customers they can’t reach. That’s the same way with AT&T U-verse,” Wilshire said. “There are certain areas not available at the present time that need to have the same opportunities to have affordable high-speed internet.”

Past efforts to appeal to larger providers to service rural areas of Franklin County have been unsuccessful, Morrow explained.

“If we wait around and do nothing, AT&T and Charter and Comcast will never run high-speed internet into our rural areas,” Morrow said. “This is the only way we have a shot--if the electric cooperatives, the same ones who brought these people electricity in the ‘30s and ‘40s, make this happen.

“There are not a lot of alternatives out there to have dependable high-speed internet. We’re at the discussion stage exploring this alternative. That’s the best way to describe today’s meeting.”

Darren Woodruff, chairman of the Russellville Electric Board, announced that the board would be hosting a broadband meeting on Thursday, December 21 at 6 p.m. at the Russellville Electric Warehouse.

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