Affordable broadband internet access is non-existent in some parts of Mississippi, and while state officials hope to use federal virus relief funds to bring high-speed internet to rural areas of the state, none of that money is coming to Southwest Mississippi.
“We are embarking on an effort as a state to rapidly expand access to broadband in underserved efforts with a specific focus on distance learning and telemedicine,” Gov. Tate Reeves said in announcing the initiative on Tuesday.
Former Sen. Sally Doty of Brookhaven, recently appointed by Reeves to lead the state’s Public Utilities Staff, named Southwest Mississippi a target area for the project. However, none of the funds are going to rural electric cooperatives in the area, which would supply the infrastructure.
“Building out this broadband network is very much like what our co-ops did in the early 1900s to get electricity out to our rural homes. Internet is now so integrated in all areas of our life,” Doty said.
Reeves said the goal of the project is to improve equity in education in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We know there are going to be options for students to learn from home across the state this year, we also know that there are barriers for far too many families,” he said. “Everyone in Mississippi doesn’t have strong, positive internet access that they may need to get a quality education while staying at home.”
The Mississippi Legislature appropriated $75 million in a competitive grant program to provide of high-speed internet access to largely rural areas to enable distance learning and improve telemedicine as hospitals are stretched to their limits statewide.
The Public Utilities Staff has appropriated $65 million of the funds and released a list of rural electric cooperatives that received them. Thirteen of the 15 cooperatives listed are in north Mississippi.
The remaining $10 million is earmarked for other internet service providers.
Projects that do begin are expected to be completed promptly.
Cooperatives awarded funds are required to match them, essentially doubling the value of the grant to $150 million.
But Doty said some cooperatives have plans to match far more funds than required and that the true value of the program will be immense.
“We all know that providing internet service to rural areas is costly and very labor intensive, but these 15 co-ops have taken on this challenge and will be installing 2,765 miles of fiber by the end of this year and an additional 1,980 miles in 2021,” she said.
Although the installation will be expensive, electric cooperatives have existing infrastructure in place to handle the expansion, with plans calling for fiber optic cable to be run alongside existing wires.
“Costs for internet service provided to the home will be in line with other internet providers across the state,” Doty said.
Cooperatives will re-bid for leftover funds and anything that remains will be transferred to the state unemployment trust on Oct. 1.