For Shawn Edmondson, general manager at Natchez Trace Electric Power Association (EPA), personal communications with members of his electric cooperative in rural north Mississippi are what shone a light on the need for broadband service there.
He recalled an email from a family whose high school daughter was forced to complete her remote learning coursework with her computer sitting directly next to the household’s wireless router because it was the only way to get any speed to upload assignments to the school server.
“These customers are paying more than $100 per month for internet service that’s less than 1 Mpbs,” Edmondson said. “It bogs down, locks out, and then they have to start over. We hear a lot of horror stories like that.”
Natchez Trace EPA is looking to transform the future of members in its most underserved areas with a pilot program funded by the federal CARES Act coronavirus recovery plan to deliver high-speed broadband via fiber-to-the- home (FTTH) network construction.
Natchez Trace EPA is one of 15 EPAs awarded a grant from the Mississippi state legislature for FTTH broadband projects to reach unserved and underserved Mississippi communities. Seven of those EPAs, including Natchez Trace, are working with Conexon. In less than six months, they will collectively build over 2,000 miles of fiber, making service available to over 40,000 unserved rural Mississippians. Natchez Trace EPA will offer FTTH service to members through a newly formed entity, NT Spark.
The Natchez Trace EPA territory is rural and agriculture-based, with sweet potato farming a key industry. Existing high-speed options in the pilot region are limited at best.
“It has been said that technology has made the world smaller, but our rural communities are still isolated because of lack of access to broadband. This pilot project, with funding from the state, will correct this inequity and immediately improve the quality of life of the people in this area,” Edmondson said.
The gigabit-speed symmetrical broadband service that Natchez Trace EPA is building out will be so different from the current standard that Edmondson noted educating cooperative members about its capabilities is one of the team’s first tasks. “Education, telemedicine, and remote work all become possible,” he said.
Natchez Trace EPA has partnered with Conexon from the initial feasibility study and they are now working together on project management, logistics, make- ready engineering and construction for the pilot. Edmondson said Conexon’s expertise and experience have been invaluable from the beginning.
“From the first meeting, Conexon impressed us. The partners were knowledgeable of the subject matter and authoritative—they knew exactly what needed to be done to be successful. But they also really care about what they’re doing and believe in it..”
“Even the unique nature of this project, where the timeline is so compressed, didn’t shake them at all. They knew exactly what needed to be done every step of the way in order to meet those deadlines,” Edmondson said. “So far we’re on track and we feel really good where we are. We haven’t gotten any bad advice yet.”
Edmondson and his team are optimistic about the opportunity for additional grant funds to allow expansion of the FTTH broadband network throughout the cooperative’s full 7-county territory, ideally starting with other underserved areas next year.
“Fiber was dead in the water here. Then two months ago, we got the grant and it’s progressed from there. Today we’re hanging fiber,” Edmondson said. “It’s way outside our comfort zone, totally different from anything we’ve worked on before. But with the good group of folks at Conexon working with us, it just makes you feel good about what you’re doing.”