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Lack of high-speed connections can limit opportunities

Internet access an issue for rural Mississippians

If you’re a business pro that is proud you haven’t yet joined the information superhighway, if you are still doing most of your work with pens, pencils, typewriters and fax machines, then let’s hope you’re near retirement age.

“All types of different business mediums are getting into the Internet game,” said Betsy Schonberger, Mississippi market manager for Unity, a telecommunications company that bundles telecommunications services such as long distance, wireless and Internet services. “You can’t ignore it. It is here. It is the way we do business now, and will increasingly in the next millennium. Any business without their own web page and Internet access has made a decision they just don’t want to compete.”

Mississippi remains the most rural state in the country. About 53% of the state’s population lives in areas with 2,499 people or less. This impacts businesses located in those rural areas because they often don’t have a local number they can call toll-free for Internet access.

“In Mississippi trying to get rural areas covered is a hot topic,” Schonberger said. “People are getting more interested in the Internet to do everything from keeping in touch with their children in college to making airplane reservations. From a business standpoint, it is the main way that people will be communicating in the future. I would much rather get an e-mail which tells me exactly what to respond with. It is much more efficient that voice mail.

“The situation with my company is that we are primarily waiting on our Internet provider to provide coverage for these rural areas. We have great hopes that in the very, very near future we will be able to offer the coverage that is needed out there.”

Schonberger said sometimes even if an Internet provider has a local access number in a rural area, they don’t have the speed or the nationwide access needed. For example, a businessman in Greenwood traveling to Atlanta may not have a number in Atlanta that can be used to access the Internet while traveling.

Unity has the opposite problem. It can provide access in any major city in the country. But it doesn’t have access in rural Mississippi.

“That is a limitation, getting local access,” she said. “I think this is something every major Internet operator is looking at because it is the future. It is what everyone is going to need to do business.”

The lack of high-speed access services in Mississippi is also a problem related to the state’s rural nature. BellSouth launched high-speed ADSL (Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line) access for consumers in major metropolitan markets first. Mississippi won’t get its first ADSL access until the fall of this year, and then only in a portion of Jackson. ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) has also been limited to about 63% of Mississippi.

Speed is important to businesses. It takes quite a bit of time to download large amounts of data with present phone technology. So there is great interest in being able to download data more quickly.

Schonberger said she often has customers who aren’t getting the speed they thought they were buying.

“The problem comes when you have a computer that says it is 56K compatible, but you end up getting about 28K,” she said. “We get a lot of complaints from customers about that. It is a symptom of the way their computer and modem are configured. There is nothing we can do about it from this side. Consumers need to be cautious when purchasing equipment to make sure they are getting what they think they are getting.”

Michael Landers, director of marketing, American MetroCom, said the company plans to offer ADSL services on the Coast towards the end of the year.

“The benefit is that, with newer technology, files can be transferred more quickly,” Landers said. “The data will move faster through the lines, and the video clips can be much more quickly transferred. It just makes life a whole lot easier instead of sitting there waiting for something to download off the Internet.”

Landers said with everyone using the Internet more and more for day-to-day business, telecommuting is becoming increasingly popular. And while the biggest demand for services like ADSL is from business users, Landers said that when people get used to quicker Internet access at their offices, they are going to want to have it at home for doing work on evenings or weekends, or just for personal Internet usage.

American MetroCom is reaching out to provide Internet service to areas of rural Mississippi. Currently the company has expanded to service George, Stone and Pearl River counties.

“We have picked up a lot of customers up there,” Landers said. “As we move farther north, we expect to pick up more customers in those rural areas.”

American MetroCom also plans to begin offering digitized connections that will permit voice, Internet, and other data services over the same line. The company is also eyeing expansion into north Mississippi.

About Becky Gillette

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