We take electricity for granted today, but it wasn’t that long ago that rural areas were without this necessary utility. As cities became electrified, rural areas were left out because the power companies being formed believed that providing power to rural areas would not be cost-effective. I imagine there were arguments such as, “Farmers don’t need electricity.” It wasn’t until 1934 – less than 100 years ago – that the first electric cooperative was established in Alcorn County, Mississippi. With help from The Tennessee Valley Authority, the Alcorn County Electric Power Association lit up Alcorn County’s unincorporated areas and was a tremendous success. With the success of the “Alcorn County Experiment,” as it came to be known, the Rural Electrification Administration was formed, and rural Americans were finally connected to the power grid. The first rural electric power association to take advantage of funds from the REA was the Monroe County Electric Cooperative in Amory, Mississippi. The lives of rural residents became easier, and more opportunities than ever were available to people thanks to electricity finally being made available to them.
Just as electricity changed the rural landscape with modern conveniences and more opportunities for schools to serve students, the same can be said about broadband internet access. In 2023, broadband internet is as essential as electricity was becoming in the 1930s before rural electrification took hold. Mississippi is one of the worst states in the country for broadband access, and the county I live in – Lincoln County – is vastly underserved. At my house, my choices are slow mobile hotspots or satellite. Thankfully (and I use that term loosely), I have Starlink, which is the better satellite service, but the service is still not great. I live in an area that has been ignored and abandoned by AT&T, the company that provides the POTS telephone service for the area and once supplied the residents with DSL service. AT&T is phasing out DSL service across its network, so soon, the residents of the Auburn community in Lincoln County won’t even have that option. As of today, AT&T has no plans to upgrade its system to fiber optic, nor do they have plans to offer fixed wireless service in the area.
Here’s the reality that I’ve lived in other places and I’m living now: The major telecom companies don’t care about rural America. They claim to, but their actions do not support their assertion. I recently attended a meeting conducted by Jonathan Chambers, one of the partners of Connexon, a company he and Randy Klindt founded to help rural people connect to fiber optic broadband. During this meeting, Jonathan shared a quote from the CEO of AT&T that indicated that, while he understands that fiber optic is a game changer, the best AT&T will do for rural America is much slower and less reliable fixed wireless broadband because it’s cheaper.
Let me be clear: Corporate America does not care about rural communities, contrary to what they want you to believe.
If we want rural communities to have the same opportunities for more education, better employment, and, yes, better entertainment as their urban and suburban counterparts, it will be up to the electric cooperatives to make this happen. Just as these member-owned brought electricity to the farm when the big power companies refused, it will be up to them to bring fiber optic broadband to the farm today. AT&T, Verizon, Sparklight, and whoever else will not make this happen. In response to this reality, in 2019, Mississippi enacted a law – with nearly unanimous bi-partisan support – that allows electric cooperatives to offer services other than electricity, specifically broadband internet access. Other states have passed similar laws because their legislators understand that no one else will serve rural customers.
Sadly, not every electric co-op has gotten behind these efforts. In Mississippi, several co-ops, including Magnolia Electric Power, the electricity provider in my area, have resisted becoming involved in providing broadband to their customers. The reasons are varied, and I’m not trying to say the reasons are not all valid, but I also believe this resistance is myopic. At the meeting I mentioned above, the General Manager of Magnolia Electric Power, Darrell Smith, stated (essentially) that they support rural broadband but that MEP did not believe that their direct involvement was wise. 
If not MEP (or other cooperatives), then who? Connexon, through a subsidiary, has already secured funding to wire several areas in the MEP grid – and will do so starting later this year per Mr. Chambers – but what about the rest of the areas? This is where MEP could help, as other cooperatives in Mississippi and elsewhere have done.
From my perspective, better broadband would allow the church to fulfill the Great Commission better. I have written extensively on being where people are (all you have to do is browse my blog for a moment, and you’ll find several posts on this topic), and better internet access allows the church to do just that. As Jesus, John Wesley, and countless others went to minister to the people right where they were, today, the church must be able to minister online. This looks like more than live streaming a worship service, but giving robust opportunities for online engagement for discipleship, digital outreach, and even helping online. The reality is even older people are taking advantage of digital ministry (the number one demographic of online worshippers at Adams UMC is aged 65+), so the idea that it’s just “for the kids” or that it “keeps people away” is false. Any church that has engaged in robust online ministry is seeing fruit both on the socials and in the pews. More importantly, we see lives changed and souls saved.
I would love to see more involvement from the electric power associations in bringing broadband, but I would also like to see other legal changes take place. For example, laws to make creating a telecommunication cooperative easier. Clearing red tape allows those who want to bring broadband to rural communities to do so easier. Further, allowing electric cooperatives not to have to bow to the likes of AT&T when it comes to negotiating pole rental fees would be a very positive change to allow rural cooperatives all rural broadband providers to hook up to their poles easier would go a long way in making fiber optic broadband a reality for rural communities. Currently, the laws of Mississippi prevent rural EPAs from charging pole rent to rural broadband providers at lower rates than they would for the likes of AT&T.
Why should AT&T get favors in areas that they have abandoned?
I hope you will join me in supporting increased opportunities for rural communities to become connected. Bridging the digital divide is a justice issue. Simply, it’s unjust for people not to have the same opportunities as others simply because they live in rural areas. Broadband internet is no longer optional. It’s essential not only for YouTube and Facebook but for work, education, and even paying bills. Simply, it’s good stewardship.
Rural electric cooperatives were established because people realized that the major power companies would not serve rural communities. The same lesson applies to rural broadband.
 I don’t remember, nor can I find, the exact quote, but this was the gist of what was shared.
 Ironically, MEP recently experienced an internet outage at their office that lasted about a week because of an issue with AT&T.