JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - The pandemic has put a spotlight on an issue Mississippians have faced long before coronavirus was a thought... broadband access.
But momentum has picked up as more money has flowed in.
Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley wants Mississippi to come out of the pandemic better connected.
“We cannot as a state compete with a public policy that says if you want to get on the internet, you need to go to a fast food restaurant’s parking lot,” said Presley. “That’s not going to work. So, in the year 2021 for Mississippi to compete... we’ve got to be able to connect.”
But building out that network costs. And Mississippi’s gotten a significant infusion of money from the feds.
“Almost 800 million dollars,” Presley explained.
Last year, the legislature approved $75 million in CARES Act money, dubbed the ‘COVID-19 Connectivity Act’.
Another $495 million was awarded to the state through the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. And now $166 million will be available through the American Rescue Plan.
Dixie Electric Power Association is one of the electric cooperatives benefiting. They were still doing their feasibility study when the first set of dollars became available.
“That accelerated our process significantly,” said Dixie Electric Power Association General Manager Randy Smith. “So, we went from planning stages that we were looking at 6-8 month planning period to about a 6 week planning period.”
Now, they’ve received another $21.4 million from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and will use that to continue construction.
On top of that, companies like TEC independently sought out federal dollars designated for the same purpose of broadband expansion. They were awarded more than 40 million dollars in an FCC auction. The goal: to build out a fiber infrastructure to un-served and under-served areas.
“They don’t have internet access except probably maybe from a satellite provider or some kind of wireless using your cellphone kind of thing. But not the depth and breadth of the gigabit speed that we’ll be able to provide with our fiber network,” described Joey Garner, TEC Executive Vice President.
The legislature also passed a bill this session that’s awaiting the Governor’s signature.
It would allow energy companies to lease what’s called “dark fiber” to any internet service provider. That, too, would allow for expanded internet access in parts of the state.