What You’ll Learn
Commissioner Brandon Presley of the Mississippi Public Service Commission discusses the events that took place within the state government for electric co-ops to be legally allowed to provide broadband services to their customers.
Guest SpeakerCommissioner Brandon Presley
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Stephen Smith: And thank you for listening in to another episode of Rural Broadband Today. And I’m excited to have as our guest on the show Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley. Commissioner, we’re delighted to have you on the show.
Brandon Presley: I am glad to be with you. I appreciate the chance. For a long time, we’ve been needing to link up.
Stephen Smith: Yeah, that’s for sure. I’ve been following your career over there for some time, and I think you really put the service in public service commissioner.
Brandon Presley: I appreciate that. I appreciate that very much.
Stephen Smith: So let’s kind of start there and give our listeners a little background in how you got to the Public Service Commission. I know there’s been a few stops along the way, so just give us a little background.
Brandon Presley: Well, for my first political office, I was elected mayor of my hometown of Nettleton back in 2001. Then I served there. I was reelected in 2005. Then the public service commissioner that had been in office for 16 years had decided not to seek reelection in 2007. So in Mississippi municipal elections — like in Alabama and most states — are on an off-year compared to when state elections are. And so when I was reelected in 2005, I was about two years into that term when the seat on the Public Service Commission came open. I ran, and I was elected. So I had to resign as mayor on December 31, 2007, and of course, became commissioner the next day. That’s sort of been my career coming from local government into state government. Then, of course, I ran for reelection in 2011, 2015, and then last year. Luckily last year, I slipped by without having an opponent.
Stephen Smith: Now that speaks to your popularity and the fact that the public has trust in you. Thanks for doing a great job.
Brandon Presley: Either that or nobody else wants this crazy job, one of the two.
Stephen Smith: Well, it’s easy for citizens to look at the governor and see what they do and even your local senators and representatives. But when you think about the Public Service Commission, it’s not always clear exactly what the role of a commissioner is. Now, explain for our listeners a little bit about what a public service commissioner does.
Brandon Presley: Well, you know, in Mississippi, the Public Service Commission is one of the oldest state agencies. It’s actually mentioned in our state constitution. It began as the Railroad Commission because of railroads coming through areas, and obviously the need to protect landowners, ensure fair transportation rates, and those sort of things. And then over the years, as monopoly systems kind of increased in their penetration really and how our society works, the Public Service Commission became more of a regulatory body, not just over railroads, but electricity, water, sewer, natural gas (as it came in as an energy source), and telephones. And then, of course, in 2020, that’s morphed into really a different take on telecommunications. When you look at things like broadband and others, and although we don’t regulate the cost for service to broadband, our agency is tasked with enforcing and administering much of the FCC’s rules related to the Connect America Fund, the Universal Service Fund. We also have a role to play in that related to telecommunications.
Brandon Presley: In a broader sense, the legislature a few years ago tasked the Commission with making sure that — in carrying out all of our duties — that we advance the economic development of the state. Of course, one of our duties is related to the expenditure of broadband money and how policy works on both the federal level, but making sure we get the most for the state.
Stephen Smith: So let’s boil that down to how the Public Service Commission impacts the daily lives of the citizens.
Brandon Presley: Well, you know, we regulate the vital services of the people, the state. You know, nobody could imagine in 2020 not having electricity, not being able to get a phone. These are the machines, if you will, that make our economy work and make modern life work.
Brandon Presley: And so, you know, our job when it comes to electricity is to make sure it’s reliable, affordable, and the lights are always on. That’s kind of a worn-out phrase, but it’s true. And the same thing with other services. But I’ve tried to take a different take on that. Yes, that’s part of our job is to make sure that the current system works. But also, how are we expanding services to people who lack them? How are we making sure that, for instance, rural communities get access to natural gas service, so they have the same options to heat their home as someone living in a city? And, of course, that applies to broadband. But also, you know, and incidentally, just yesterday we got notice of a grant that has been awarded to one of our small towns to go out into a rural area to provide water. And we’re working on some legislation to make sure that the laws are clear that this city, this town really, can go out and serve these rural customers. So we think that, you know, everybody has access to community water, but they don’t. So we still have some basic building blocks of services that we’re still working on. But, you know, the one that is leapfrogged just about everything, to be candid with you, has been the topic of your podcast and your work, and that’s broadband.
Stephen Smith: Absolutely. And I think we knew leading up to the current [global pandemic] situation that we’re in that broadband and solving this rural broadband problem definitely needed to be a focus of the country. I mean, we can look back even to 2009-2010 with the stimulus grants, the ReConnect, and things of that nature. There’s been momentum, but I think that pales in comparison to the attention that rural broadband is getting now because of all the folks sitting at home working, going to school, and having to access those services from the house.
Brandon Presley: Well, that’s exactly right. I mean, we knew that this was an issue going into COVID-19. It was getting a lot of the appropriate attention, and not just on the federal level, but the state level. But I think that we never had to really rely on the system. We were in a situation where we were reacting to the fact that people lacked service, but that was not coupled with the sense of a national emergency or a pandemic. [A pandemic] where we had to within a period of really two weeks, to be fair about the calendar, the whole country had to transition in a major shift to online work, online education, telehealth, telemedicine, and we had to do it. And we were somewhat, I think for rural areas, not caught by surprise — because we knew this was an issue and some of us had been working on it for a long time — but the issue was forced. And we had to really see the realities of where this lack of public leadership in many places had gotten us. And essentially, we were forced into that situation by events outside of our control, and it just made it starker, clearer, closer, and personal. And the very things that many of us have been talking about for years, came to pass in reality and in which other people — legislators, policymakers, and the like — could see. I mean, when you drive by McDonald’s and McDonald’s parking lot is filled up with parents doing homework. When I drove by my library in my hometown of Nettleton, just a block from my house, and one night there were seven or eight cars sitting in the parking lot, and they were all accessing the hotspot there. That tells you that we’ve got a problem. It’s undeniable. The jury’s returned a verdict, and this is something we’ve got to get fixed. And we have to get it fixed with the tools that we have in the toolbox, but at the same time, understanding that there’s going to be a time that we’re going to have a second wave of this pandemic. You know, I believe science, and we know that that’s coming. But God forbid, we have another pandemic within the next decade or the next two decades. Are we going to take the lessons learned during COVID-19 and say, “under no circumstance are we going to be back here again?” Or are we just going to Band-Aid this and hope that maybe we can skirt around the edges and really not have a policy. And there are a lot of things that stand in the way of that, as you probably already are aware. We know it in our gut, a lot of money and interest, there are a lot of reasons in which there are folks that stand against rural broadband because of a selfish interest, quite frankly.
Stephen Smith: Well, I really believe the collective will is there now for the country to say, look, we need to solve this. Of course, there are always folks who say, well, people choose to live in a rural area, and they understand that they’re going to have limited access to resources. So just let them deal with that. But that’s really not the reality. We can’t have everyone moving to the city.
Brandon Presley: That’s right. And, you know, I hear politicians — and I’m one of them, so I talk about politicians — you know, I hear people talk about rural America, and they want to conjure up the images of a barn and a John Deere tractor. And that’s right. But don’t talk about rural America if you’re not talking about connectivity and rural broadband. Because the truth is, if you’re not trying to fix that problem, you really don’t care about rural America, because that is the issue that is holding our rural people back. It’s when we see population trends going the wrong way in rural America, rural Mississippi, and rural Alabama. And that’s just a fact. It’s undeniable. And it’s the same situation that we found ourselves in in the 1930s with electricity, and we fixed it. We’ve got to do the same here. You know, this is — I hate to use the term — no brainer. But this is one of the simplest issues to recognize. Fixing it has got a lot of twists and turns, but recognizing the problem that is there, is very simple. It’s something that we can do something about, and we know that there are models that can do something about it. It just steps on some toes of people who like the system the way it is and like to have their little playground the way in which they have it, in which they’ve been able to reap huge monetary benefits to the detriment of people in our most rural areas. [They] have been told by these very companies, “we have no desire to serve your area. We have no plans to serve your area.” And so while certain Internet service providers and big telecom companies will tell a rural county, “we don’t intend to bring service there,” they don’t want anybody else to. And that’s where I think the exposure to that hypocrisy has really helped us get some legs, and not only in Mississippi but around the country.
Stephen Smith: Well, leading into this pandemic, but before that Mississippi was becoming a hotbed of rural broadband progress. And I believe it was — correct me if I’m wrong — in January 2019 when the governor signed that legislation. I’d like to get you to talk a little bit about that with our listeners here.
Brandon Presley: Yeah, well, we really have to back up a little further than that, actually. So, you know, I was elected to the Commission in 2007. And in 2008 while broadband was a topic at the time — the world has changed so much in the past decade — that in 2008, while broadband connectivity was an issue, we really were talking about cell phone reception, and that’s still a problem to certain degrees. But broadband connectivity was something that you heard economic developers talk about. It’s something that you heard tech people talking about. But most people at that time, you know, literally, if you could open your email, send an email, do a little online shopping, you were to some degree all right. The world progressed so fast and exponentially in the decade that ensued from 2008 to 2018 that the rise of Internet banking, Amazon — all of the things that we know now — smartphones, which were there in 2008 but really had not integrated into our lives to where we’ve got them with us all the time. And I do probably 90% of all my personal shopping and finance and whatever online. None of that was really there to a large degree for a decade.
Brandon Presley: So as that progressed, I began to see and others began to see, this is a gulf. This is a huge divide. Consumers were upset. Rural communities were upset. Children were being left behind. And there really was no fix, except a strategy of let’s just gripe about it. Let’s just whine about it. And so we began looking at what’s the best strategy for Mississippi [which is] at the bottom of almost every list of economic indicators and socio-economic status. We were at the bottom of the heap. How do we move that Mississippian? And as luck would have it — this has got an Alabama twist to it — I was contacted back in late 2017 by the mayor of the town of Belmont, which is in Tishomingo County right down the state land with Franklin County, Alabama. And the mayor said, you know, I’ve been invited to this meeting on broadband over in Russellville, Alabama, the county seat of Franklin County. He said, I’m not going to be able to go, but I thought you ought to know about it. So I went that night and met Steve Foshee, who is the CEO of Tombigbee Electric Cooperative there in Hamilton, Alabama, down in Marion County. And Steve was talking about what his co-op was doing on broadband and how they were doing it. While I had heard some anecdotal stories about co-ops doing broadband, this one was 14 miles from the Mississippi line. You know, I know where Hamilton, Alabama is. And also there was a State Representative Johnny Mack Morrow, who at that time had served 28 years in the Alabama House, and we began working on, how could we study the model and the arrangement that had been put together in Hamilton and in Marion County, and how can we replicate that in Mississippi?
Brandon Presley: It’s like that proverbial light bulb went off in my head that we can take the same model that brought electricity and do the same for broadband if we can get the right players on the team and get it moving. So I reached out to our electric cooperatives in Mississippi and said, “OK, you’ve got a co-op in Alabama that’s doing this. What is prohibiting a co-op in Mississippi, an electric co-op that wants to provide broadband, what’s prohibiting them? Why can’t you move today?” And we returned to a bill. The answer came back. There’s a statute on the books from 1942 that said that electric cooperatives can only sell electricity. That’s all they could do. So we had a written prohibition in the law against co-ops doing anything but providing electricity. Y’all don’t have that provision in Alabama, and I’m not aware that that provision is anywhere else in America. We were the only state that had it. That’s number one. Number two, you had a Supreme Court decision in Mississippi, Propane Association versus Tallahatchie Valley Electric Cooperative, that said that that statute, in fact, did apply. That it was exclusive to electricity. So there was no wiggle room within the law or within a court decision.
Brandon Presley: So we knew our first job was to get that law taken off the books, strip that law from the books, and get it amended to open the door for co-ops to be able to provide broadband. And, you know, I think it’s a great story about citizen participation. We had 1,310 people show up at town hall meetings in courthouses, community centers, church gymnasiums, you name it. And we had meetings in which we organized in the 33 counties that I represent, which is in northeast Mississippi and northwest Mississippi. Everything from about Starkville, Mississippi, down in Winston County south of there, to the Tennessee line. We had 1,310 people sign up and say, we want to get this law changed. And of course, we invited legislators to be there. Many of whom supported the idea, but many of whom didn’t realize that this law had been on the books since 1942. So building that coalition was very important in having those soldiers who were ready to go out and work and make phone calls and send emails. Coupled with the fact that Mississippi Farm Bureau stepped in and supported the change in the law. We had the Mississippi Realtors Association, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the state, that was making the case that you can’t sell a house in rural Mississippi if you don’t have Internet service. It’s been something that’s stopping the growth in those rural communities. And then AARP came in to talk about the impact on senior citizens. Once we had that coalition working, we reached out to our cities and counties of which, I think this number is going to be close, I think we had of the 82 counties, we had somewhere around 60 that passed resolutions supporting the change in the law and supporting the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act. I think we had somewhere around 100 cities and towns, and the only reason we didn’t have more is we just ran out of time. You know, we had them pouring in very quickly.
Brandon Presley: So with getting that done, when we went to the legislature, we began to try to work in the fall of 2018, talking with the lieutenant governor and the speaker and the governor’s office and others. And, you know, we had a lot of good support, but I think there was some nervousness about what is AT&T going to do, what are the cable companies going to do. But to the credit of the legislators, and particularly to the credit of House Speaker Philip Gunn — and I have to stop and note here, I’m a Democrat and Speaker Gunn is a Republican, so this is an unlikely alliance, you know, as far as the way we look at things, unfortunately, in political partisanship these days. Speaker Gunn was willing to put his name on the bill himself, sponsor it, and that bill sailed through the Committee. We had a lot of things that we had to work out in there related to pole attachment fees, to how the broadband subsidiary would be set up, that you cannot subsidize. You can’t charge me an extra penny per kilowatt-hour on my electricity to do the broadband project. We required in the law that there’d be a feasibility study, and for members to be able to see that. You know, there are a lot of checks and balances in there. And that bill passed out of the House pretty much immediately. It went over, I think it was, four days or five days between when the House passed it. I was able to meet with then Lieutenant Governor Reeves, who’s now governor, and Chair Sally Doty, who was chair of the committee. And that bill came out, I think the next day and passed unanimously in the Senate. The governor signed it within — I think it has to go to him and then the statutory process is 10 days — but whatever it was, it was the first bill that Governor Bryant signed in the session. And I think from start to finish, it passed in 16 days. So that’s what got us to where we are.
Stephen Smith: Well, that is a great story. You don’t see legislation moving that quickly, which is another example of just how much collective will there is behind let’s do something to solve this.
Brandon Presley: Yeah. And I think that’s exactly right. I think that legislators, you know — and I’m just going to be candid about it — it did not hurt our cause the fact that it was an election year. And so with that being an election year, I don’t think anybody sitting in the legislature wanted to be a vote against it. We had three votes in the House that were against the bill, and those all came from representatives who represented areas that already had plentiful broadband.
Stephen Smith: Right. Now in Alabama, we have a handful of traditional telephone cooperatives. Tennessee, north of us, we do a lot of work up there and in Kentucky. There are telephone cooperatives all over that have been into the broadband business and getting fiber-to-the-home networks out there in some really sparsely populated areas. But that’s not really the case in Mississippi, right? You don’t really have those telephone cooperatives out there.
Brandon Presley: We don’t, and we have some small telephone companies that are engaged in the business, but their lifeblood is federal subsidies. But we do not have a cooperative in the state that’s a telephone cooperative.
Stephen Smith: So that brings us to getting the electric cooperatives involved was really about — and I’ll let you elaborate on this — but it is about the cooperative business model really being the ideal mechanism to solve this problem.
Brandon Presley: Yep, there’s no doubt about it. I mean, the biggest people I had the sale on doing this was not the legislature. It was not the governor. It was the electric cooperatives themselves. Very few of whom at that time wanted to take on this idea or take on this movement, but I think once they realized that they were, in fact, the vehicle that could solve this problem, we haven’t had much trouble getting that moving. But, you know, in 1934 people didn’t have electricity in rural areas. They had it in cities. And the issue became, how do rural people enjoy the same quality of life as people who live in a populated area? And of course, the electric cooperative movement was born here in Mississippi with Alcorn County Electric Power being the first rural electric co-op formed in America. Pontotoc County being the second. And then three, four, five and six are all here in northeast Mississippi. To fix in the 30s what is the exact same problem we have now in 2020, and that is that people living in a populated area enjoy the quality of life with modern conveniences and technology that folks in rural areas didn’t.
Brandon Presley: Co-ops are not there to make a profit. They are a not-for-profit entity. Co-ops exist to provide a service to members at the lowest possible cost and to get it to everybody. And they are owned by the very people that they serve. And you know, that model puts people over profits. And that model solved the same… I’ve read so much. If you are a history buff, if you read Robert Caro’s first book on Lyndon Johnson, there’s a great chapter in there, two of them. One is called “The Sad Irons”, and it talks about what life on a rural farm or at a rural household was like before electricity. And the second one is, I’ll get it for you. And it’s how Johnson navigated getting electricity and the funding to bring electricity to the hill country of Texas. If you read through that, you see the exact same things. I can remember lines from that book where it talked about farmers and rural families going down to the power company and saying, we really would love to get electricity. And they told them, that’s fine. You know, if you’ll pay for the poles and wires, we’ll bring it to you. Of course, those people could not pay for that. Or they would charge a higher rate to get it to them. In many degrees, those same exact facts set up today. And they’re in the same vein because of what we see with broadband. I mean, we’ve got cable companies that tell people if you’ll pay $30,000, we’ll bring you cable Internet service. And what do you think that rural family says? No, thank you. So the cooperative model is not driven by profits; it’s driven by a sense of purpose and a mission for the greater good and to actually solve a problem.
Stephen Smith: Exactly. Exactly. Our company, WordSouth, we’ve been serving electric cooperatives and rural telco providers for 24 years. And our very first client had a story about the reason they existed. It’s an electric cooperative in North Alabama. They had a bunch of farmers load up on a flatbed truck and ride down the mountain into the town to talk to the investor-owned utility about the same thing you mentioned there. And they got the same response. You know, we can’t go out there and make money, but if you’ll pay for all this, well, we’ll make that possible. And of course, that’s, as you said, absolutely impossible.
Brandon Presley: Well, you know, we got to decide in this country whether we want people to have broadband or not. And if the answer is, we want them to have it, then we’ve got to tackle it in that way. And what you’re talking about, about those people going down, I have constituents call me and say they’ve contacted the cable provider and the cable providers tell them, oh, we’ll be glad to do it. But, you know, even in one case, I had a cardiologist here in Lee County now in Tupelo that had been told by the cable provider that it was going to cost $7,500 for them — he was doing telemedicine from home during the pandemic — and they said that it was going to be $7,500 to get service to his house. Well, a cardiologist probably can afford that, let’s be honest. But even in a more populated area, people are being told that.
Stephen Smith: Right. Right. You know, and the power of the free market solves a lot of problems, but it will never solve the problem of rural broadband because there’s just not enough money to be made there to pay Wall Street. You know, it’s just not going to happen. And the cooperative business model has proven itself.
Brandon Presley: The free markets fail rural America on broadband. It completely failed rural America on rural broadband. And the proof is in the pudding with the disparities that are there and the fact that — and I support the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. I support the Universal Service Fund. I support all. I wish Mississippi had one on the state level. But the proof is there. And so you know, I think you’re 100% on target that this is the model that is actually getting the work done.
Stephen Smith: Well, you mentioned the RDOF, and I was about to get into that. You are currently serving as president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. In that role, you were on a panel recently with a call that I sat in on with Congressman James Clyburn from South Carolina, the majority whip, talking about some legislation that I know you’ve been passionate about and that you have really helped to push at the national level with your position at NARUC. Tell us about that.
Brandon Presley: Well, we have been very supportive of a plan that I think is common sense. The funds for RDOF were allocated and budgeted, and the plan for financing was released long before we had ever heard of COVID-19. And those dollars are essentially sitting there. They’ve been budgeted. We know that they are available to be acted upon. The issue becomes, when do we do it? And the bill that I have supported and that our association supports is a bipartisan bill in the House, authored by Democratic Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina and Fred Upton of Michigan. It’s H.R. 7022 if anybody wants to look at it. That bill does a couple of things. Number one, it says that if only one provider offers fiber-to-the-home, one-gigabit service to a census block within the clearing price of the auction, then that is automatically awarded if there’s only one bidder. So if only one person steps up and says, I will go serve this rural area in DeKalb County, Alabama, and I will serve that area with fiber. I’ll serve it with a gig offering. Then, in fact, that would be awarded, because there is no sense in waiting to go to the fall auction, which then pushes us out another year. So this is a common-sense bill. It’s supported by NRECA, the Utilities Technology Council. We have vast support in a bipartisan manner to do that. My understanding this morning is that both of the other two Mississippi congressmen who have been holdouts on that — well not really holdouts; they just hadn’t gotten around to cosponsoring it — have, in fact, indicated that they will co-sponsor the bill. And it would just cut out much of the red tape if, in fact, only one provider stepped up to provide a gig offering and a fiber service. And so, you know, that bill to me makes a lot of sense. And we’re working hard with Senator Roger Wicker’s office — he’s a senator of Mississippi, chairs the Commerce Committee — to try to get the same kind of bill in the Senate. I’ve been very disappointed up until now unless there’s something I don’t know about this morning, that we’ve not gotten more action out of Senator Wicker. He sent a letter to the FCC, and I anticipate them to answer it with the same bureaucratic excuses for why something can’t be done. Because in many ways, not everyone at the FCC — and we just have a disagreement on this — but, you know, some people become wed to their idea, and anybody else’s idea, they don’t want to hear it. So that’s something that I think is very, very, very important to try to move forward, to get this money out, to get the building to begin, and to require it. And by the way, under Clyburn-Upton, a company would have to commence construction within six months and be completed within a year.
Stephen Smith: That’s a quick turnaround there, isn’t it?
Brandon Presley: That’s pretty quick. Yes, sir.
Stephen Smith: Well, we certainly need some fast action to move some of this. And I see what you’re saying with, you know, the money’s there. It’s been allocated. It’s not new allocations that you’re asking for on that.
Brandon Presley: Right, right, right.
Stephen Smith: What is next in Mississippi in the rural broadband story?
Brandon Presley: Well, you know, right now we’ve got nine cooperatives that are already moving into the broadband space. We would have never dreamed that when the governor signed the bill that we would have that many. We have nine that are already engaged right now in either hooking up customers or they’re in the process of just the rudimentary things, such as counting their poles, tagging their poles, that sort of thing. We have nine that are off and running. We have three right now that are in the planning stages that plan to bid into RDOF, and they’re looking to see what that award will be. And we have actually six others in the state who have indicated a willingness to our legislature that they would engage in broadband if in fact, they could secure some funds within the CARES Act. And so we’re working that very hard right now. In fact, as I’m talking to you, I’m looking at a proposed piece of legislation that we’re working on related to that in which the co-ops have stepped up and said, we can go serve 45,100 of the most unserved areas in this state. We will put 75 million dollars to do that if the state will put up 75. So it’s a dollar for dollar match, and I think we’ve got some good progress on that. And I think that will be the seed capital matched with any RDOF awards that will really not only take this model and make it go, but it will really speed up what we’re seeing in other ways.
Brandon Presley: And as you know from covering this, most cooperatives have to begin in an area that’s populated. And because that’s where they can begin making revenue. The old saying is “you’ve got to make money in the city to lose money in the rural areas.” That’s true. And so the normal business model would be that you start in a more populated area. And the last people to get service would be the people in the most unserved areas. Well, if we can secure the program we’re pushing in Mississippi, we will begin working that on both ends of the line. The normal business model will continue. You’ll continue to begin in populated areas, but also the CARES Act funding would target those in the most rural areas. And so we’ve got an all hands on deck approach to this to try to get meaningful, substantive action within our CARES Act allocations that the legislature’s going to look at.
Stephen Smith: Well, it sounds like Mississippi’s working this from all angles, and I think that’s going to be what it takes.
Brandon Presley: That’s where we’re going. You know, I’ve followed the stories in Alabama about the talks there about CARES Act expenditures. And actually, I reached out to Senator Dale Marsh, and he and I had a good conversation last week in which we were trying to exchange ideas, you know, as to what could work best between both states.
Stephen Smith: Great. Great. That’s strong that you reach across state lines and try to get new ideas and share ideas. I think that collaborative spirit is really key to solving an issue this big. Well, I know you are a very busy man, Commissioner, and I certainly appreciate you sharing some time today. I’d like to close by giving you an opportunity to kind of share a little bit about your personal philosophy with — it seems to me that you’re a man that believes that the government certainly has a role in serving its citizens. And you refer to yourself as an elected official in the style of FDR, who is certainly a political hero man as well in terms of how he saw the plight of the people and knew the government had a role in taking care of certain things. Just talk a little bit about your philosophy there.
Brandon Presley: Well, I self-describe myself as an FDR, Billy McCoy, Democrat. Mississippians would recognize that and others around the country wouldn’t. Billy McCoy was speaker of our House Representatives and was the architect of the 1987 highway program, which in fact brought four-lane highways throughout our state, and it was a struggle. President Roosevelt’s philosophy, Speaker McCoy’s philosophy, and others have been that there are certain things that the government has to get involved in for the greater good of the people. And in the 1930s, it was electricity. In the 1980s, it was highways. Now, the same issue we’ve got is broadband. We have a choice as elected officials. The easy route would just sit back and say, oh, let’s let the market handle it. The market hasn’t handled it. You know, the report cards have come in and we’ve got an “F” in how the market has handled getting access to rural Americans. And if we don’t do something about it and we do not marshal the forces of government both in (1) taking away roadblocks — and that’s what we did in the broadband enabling act. We actually cut government out of that and actually let the cooperatives, who are an institution owned by their members providing themselves service, took away their prohibition. Then, in fact, if we don’t get government out of the way in that sense, you can’t have progress. And (2) at the same time, if the government does not create the type of programs and constructs that are required for meaningful action — you know, it’s one thing to run for public office and say, oh, I’m for bringing service to rural areas. But if you don’t create some vehicle and come up with some path and fund it or at least not tip the scales to be against it, then you’re not going to get this progress.
Brandon Presley: You know, when George Norris came up with the idea for TVA, you know, there were plenty of fights, real fights about creating the Tennessee Valley Authority. Well, where would the rural South be without TVA? My hunch says that we’d be in a deeper economic hole today than we already are. It would have been exponential for decades if we had not had Tennessee Valley Authority if we’d not had the cooperative movement. And there’s nothing more American in my mind than a group of citizens coming together and saying, you know what, we’re going to fix this ourselves. We’re going to pool our money. We’re going to go out. We’re going to fix this problem ourselves. We will charge ourselves the rates that are needed to pay this off. And government-backed those loans because they knew that was a way in which to get it fixed. And so, you know, I think that I agree with President Clinton, who said one time, there can’t be a government program for every problem. But there are certain basic necessities in life that if the government does not stand up for the people and does not say we’re going to make this a priority and for the greater good. I mean, broadband, in my opinion, is a national security issue. It’s an economic security issue. And we can no longer stick our head in the sand and just hope that some tooth fairy or Santa Claus will come in and just hook up every house. We’ve got to have a plan. We’ve got to have action. We’ve got to measure those results. And we’ve got to continue to push that forward. Or we just need to stand up and be honest with the people in this country and say that we don’t care about rural America. And that’s not a stance I’m willing to take.
Stephen Smith: Amen. I think you nailed it there. It is a huge problem, but I think we have the ability in this country and now it looks like we have the wherewithal and the will to get behind this and fix this thing once and for all.
Brandon Presley: Yes, sir. I agree.
Stephen Smith: And again, my guest today has been the public service commissioner from Mississippi, Brandon Presley, who also serves as the National Association’s president. And it has been a delight having you on the program today, Commissioner.
Brandon Presley: Thank you, sir. I really appreciate the opportunity. Thank you for all the work you’re doing.
Stephen Smith: Again, I’m your host, Stephen Smith. And Rural Broadband Today is a new podcast brought to you by WordSouth — A Content Marketing Company. We also are the producers of StoryConnect: The Podcast. You’ll find these on all of your favorite podcast listening apps. Please be sure to like and share. And tell folks about this new podcast, Rural Broadband Today, covering all the issues on what we think is one of the most important and challenging issues facing our country today. Thanks for listening.