Broadband Coverage Gaps: The Rural Impact

Published: Jul. 27, 2023 at 7:00 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - There’s work being done and millions of dollars are coming into Mississippi to get more of your families connected to high-speed internet. But there are still major gaps in the broadband coverage map.

So, 3 On Your Side started asking why.

High-speed internet is part of most of our lives that we take for granted. We traveled to Southwest Mississippi where that’s not the case.

WLBT wanted to help you understand why there’s an obvious hole in access.

Nathan Case is a pastor in Brookhaven. Communicating with his congregation is key to what he does.

Before moving to his current church and home... there was a wrinkle in that communication.

“Don’t ever assume that somebody’s got high-speed internet because it’s just not right,” said Nathan Case.

That lack of high-speed access was highlighted during the pandemic.

“All three of them were in school,” he said of his children. “And they were having to do the distance learning during the pandemic. And it was hard, to get those assignments turned in or to do the Zoom calls with them. That was very tough.”

At the time, Nathan’s mom was living with them.

“While she was with us, we had no high-speed internet whatsoever,” explained Case. “And she has a pacemaker and other medical problems. That requires transmitters to go from where she is to the doctor’s office to where they can get readings on her heart. And it was very, very difficult to keep up with that not having any kind of high-speed internet.”

That left long periods without the doctor getting those all-important readings.

“The only way we worked around it is through C-Spire,” he said. “We had the little Wi-Fi hotspot. But in order to use the Wi-Fi hotspot, you have to have a cell phone signal. And a lot of times we didn’t have a good cell phone signal where we were. So, it just washed everything completely out. And they never did get a good reading until she got to where she is now with high-speed internet.”

But the Case family is far from alone. Sally Doty is the Director of the Mississippi Broadband Expansion and Accessibility Office or BEAM.

“There is a major gap in southwest Mississippi,” explained Sally Doty. “And we’re talking about totally unserved service below 100, down, and 20 up.”

There are layers of reasons why that is.

A big one is... money.

“In all of these areas that are unserved, it’s because there are more rural and low-density areas,” said Doty. “So, the financial case in the past to build it out has just not been there. It’s not good economics for companies.”

But that’s where federal funds have come in and filled in gaps. The BEAM office is tasked with awarding those dollars to the areas lacking service.

So, why have none of the millions been flowing to Southwest Mississippi?

“We are somewhat limited, our office is, in awarding funding, because there is existing federal funding for really a tremendous amount of Southwest Mississippi,” Doty described. “It is funding that was awarded in 2020 through the RDOF auction, which stands for the Rural Development Opportunity Fund.”

FCC maps and documents show the RDOF winner for these areas of Southwest Mississippi was the Rural Electric Cooperative Consortium.

Any company looking to build out broadband in the state also has to apply for designation as an eligible telecommunications carrier with the Mississippi Public Service Commission. This application shows that the consortium is tied to a Missouri-based company called Conexon Connect, LLC.

“They’re getting monthly payments now, for those areas,” Doty noted. “But we don’t have built out yet.”

Broadband build-out takes time which the grant accounts for but...

“I don’t believe the first benchmark for any of these companies is not until the end of 2024,” she said. “They’re required to have 40% of their service area completed, meet 40% of their obligation.”

WLBT reached out to Conexon to learn why they haven’t built out any of the networks in this part of the state. They declined an interview but offered this statement.

“Conexon has been engaged in building fiber broadband networks in rural Mississippi since 2019. We have worked with most of the electric power associations in the state. We often refer to the rapid deployment by Mississippi electric power associations bringing broadband to previously unserved areas as “the Mississippi miracle.” We look forward to continuing with our work and building throughout southwestern Mississippi.”

So, we also reached out to one of the electric power associations that covers some of those parts of the state... Magnolia Electric Power.

General Manager and CEO Darrell Smith tells 3 On Your Side that they’ve done two feasibility studies on providing fiber internet to their customers.

The findings? It would cost between $120 and $125 million, mostly because they don’t have any existing fiber on their lines.

Smith says Conexon bid on the census block that overlaps his service area and first contacted him two months AFTER they received the money. They wanted to partner financially but he said...

“We are not for profit,” explained Smith. “I don’t care to be in a profitable enterprise with anybody. And we have never said that we would not support another company that could get this money from the government that has the expertise to run a telecommunication company and we would help them in any way we could by law.”

Smith says he’s told Conexon they are more than welcome to lease the poles in his service territory.

“I don’t want it to look like we’re standing in the way,” noted Smith. “We are not. That is absolutely not true. We have offered everything we can to them other than getting a loan for $120 million and installing fiber on the system.”

As a reminder, in 2019, the Mississippi Legislature passed a law allowing electric cooperatives to provide internet service. But it wasn’t a requirement.

The Case family, they’re less concerned with what’s leading to issues and more so with getting their community connected.

“For people in 2023, not to have access to high-speed internet, that’s just beyond my comprehension and imagination,” added Case. “Because you can go anywhere and do anything in that place you go, we’ll have high-speed internet, but when you come home, it’s like you’re in a whole other world.”

Our research shows that Conexon isn’t the only company to get federal grant money and not yet start to build out in parts of the state. Windstream and Aristotle also won bids in the 2020 auction. The grant awards for those three companies were a total of $96 million dollars but there hasn’t been any progress to show for it.

Meanwhile, we’ve learned that since we first started asking questions last month, there are new talks between Conexon and Magnolia Electric.

The power company says it still wouldn’t be a partnership but they’re discussing how they may could work together in some way.

“Magnolia Electric Power is continuing to meet with Conexon in hopes of them fulfilling their commitment to providing broadband to the RDOF census blocks they were awarded,” said Darrell Smith, General Manager/CEO with Magnolia Electric Power. “Magnolia is working with Conexon every way we can while protecting the interests of Magnolia’s electric cooperative members.”

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