By NATHAN GREGORY
Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley spoke at the First Baptist Church gymnasium in Maben Thursday about several objectives regarding rural Mississippi communities the PSC is addressing.
Among the topics discussed were the Zap the Gap program, the PSC’s goal to bring high-speed Internet to rural areas, utility ratepayers’ rights and the commission’s work to strengthen the state’s no call list to have more regulations preventing telephone solicitation.
Zap the Gap is a PSC initiative to help improve cellular service in underserved and unserved rural areas, Presley said.
“We’ve asked rural communities to tells where the service gaps are. We’re working with the Federal Communications Commission to make sure areas in Mississippi that are unserved or underserved are in fact getting the federal money to get the towers built in those areas,” Presley said. “We’re going to bring (larger cell phone companies) back to the table. They’re getting millions … of dollars of federal money each year to go out and serve rural communities and I will make sure we’re getting that money to communities that need it.”
He took time in his discussion to address the need to regulate utility associations and make sure they’re not overcharging ratepayers for necessary services.
“Whoever you get your electricity from is the only people you can get your electricity from. Where companies are monopolies, where they don’t have any competition and the customer doesn’t have any choice, our job at the public service commission is to regulate those companies on behalf of the customers out here who have to pay the bills,” he said.
“It is very important that we regulate these companies on behalf of the customers — the average working-day Mississippian who just has to pay the bill. Too many times the influence and the power of the big monopolies and the big corporations outweigh the public’s interest. One of the daily fights I have at the commission is to make sure we balance that. Customers should have a voice. We’re elected to be that voice.”
Presley also discussed PSC’s involvement in overseeing the efficiency of rural water associations. Prelsey issued a deadline to rural water companies in January to turn over their bylaws to the PSC or face subpoenas.
“One of the issues over the last several months has been … trying to make sure our rural water associations are operating the way they should be operating. I firmly believe … associations who are owned by the members should be run by the members,” he said. “We’ve begun a process of going over all those water associations bylaws to make sure how they operate and how they’re conducting their business is in compliance with Mississippi law.”
He touched on the Ratepayers’ Bill of Rights, a 21-right legislation which went into effect in 2010 that prohibits utility entities from the practice of discontinuing services on weekends and during periods of extreme weather conditions.
“You have to have rights to protect you. If not, the companies just do what they want to do. We’ve had a ton of calls to the commission in the past about when we would have these hot days in Mississippi and people would have their electricity cut off by the power company,” Presley said. “People have to pay their bill … but I also believe there should be a fair humane practice by utility companies on how to treat people.”
He encouraged people who were being harassed by telephone solicitors to file complaints so the PSC can investigate and penalize violators of the no call regulation.
“We think it’s very serious to make sure we go after the people who call folks up and try to sell them a product over the phone. A lot of times these are scams. A lot of times it’s just somebody wanting to get a hold of your personal information,” he said. “We’re working over 9,000 open complaints right now at the commission on people calling into Mississippi and allegedly breaking our do not call law. We’ve issued more fines in the last four years than had been issued since the program was put on the books … years ago.”
Presley emphasized the need for high-speed Internet to be available in rural areas so constituents can have access to more information and so school children in rural areas can have access to the same tools children in more densely populated and better served areas have.
“In our communities where that’s not available those children are literally being left behind the rest of the state,” he said. “For the first time ever, federal funds will go into getting high-speed Internet in rural areas. You hear a lot in the news about education reform.
Nothing could be more reforming in education than high speed Internet for rural county children. We’re going to be working hard to get that done.”