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Millions spent on boosting rural telecom infrastructure

Progress is rapidly being made in the task of bringing rural telecom infrastructure up to speed, thanks to $60 million of the $97.2 million allocated this year to BellSouth by the Federal Communications Commission’s Universal Service Fund.

“As a result, we’ll give Mississippians who live in rural areas better and faster access to the Internet and other services,” said Larry Greer, BellSouth’s director of community affairs. “We’ll give them new central offices with a better array of services and we’ll insure that, where ever they’re living, if a disruption occurs, they’ll be able to get out on the long distance network and nearby communities for local calling.”

The passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act paved the way for the FCC to establish a universal service fund to upgrade facilities in rural areas as a solution to its lagging infrastructure problem. Under the FCC’s universal service order, BellSouth received $97.2 million in federal funds for 2000, in addition to the $6.8 million already allocated annually as part of the rate structure, for a total of $104 million. Similar funds are anticipated for 2001 and 2002.

“We were already spending close to $200 million a year in maintenance, new service and other expenses out of our own budget, so $6.8 million wasn’t helping that much,” said Greer. “But the shot in the arm occurred when the FCC, in 1999, indicated that, based on a new costing model, Mississippi was identified as the highest cost state and would be allocated the highest percentage of high-cost funds in the U.S.”

By the time rural infrastructure improvements are complete, rural areas will be urban in nature, said Neilsen Cochran, public service commissioner.

“Rural residents will be able to receive the same type services that could be found in downtown Jackson,” he said.

After the Mississippi Public Service Commission reviewed BellSouth’s plan for utilizing the funds, commissioners requested $37.4 million to be used for rate reduction. Senate Bill 2512, which passed earlier this year and was effective July 1, cut BellSouth’s ad valorem taxes in half, from roughly $47 million to $23.5 million.

The $60.9 million rate reduction package was comprised of the PSC-requested $37.4 million and the ad valorem rebate of $23.5 million, Greer said.

As part of the rate reduction plan, rural zone mileage charges paid by more than 400,000 telephone customers located outside BellSouth’s base rate plans were eliminated and BellSouth’s capped calling area was extended from 16 to 30 miles.

“The rate reductions established under this plan will greatly benefit rural customers, but in addition, there will be a reduction in state-wide toll rates which will affect all long distance users,” said Cochran.

Already, 163 technicians and 20 engineers have been hired to assist in the three-year program to upgrade the network in rural areas and in some suburban areas, which includes loop improvements and central office replacements, Greer said.

“With loop improvements, we’re moving our customers closer to central offices by developing carrier serving areas (CSAs) that are no more than 12,000 feet away,” he said. “Some customers are more than 18,000 feet away. We’re moving customers closer to switching points — a central office or carrier site — modems will operate at faster speeds, with the capability in the next few years of high-speed services.”

By funding loop improvements, rural customers are positioned to access integrated services digital networks (ISDNs) or to acquire synchronous digital subscriber lines (ADSLs), Greer said.

“There’s a requirement that you have to be within 18,000 feet of a central office to get ADSL, you can’t be on a loaded pair, a loop can’t have bridge taps,” he said. “We’ll basically position the network for digital services in the next few years.”

Testing improvements will include remote testing to determine maintenance problems without requiring onsite assistance and fiber will be deployed in feeder routes to serve terminal sites, Greer said.

Because they are not in compliance to provide services customers demand, 122 central offices in Mississippi will be replaced. Nearly 70 central offices have one path, or major connection, to another one that carries the calls to the outside world. A second connection will be added for access in the event the cable is cut on the first connection, Greer said.

“Our customers are going to be very delighted with this program, and it will essentially mean it will largely diffuse the digital divide that could have existed if we hadn’t had these monies,” Greer said. “With this program, we’re able to allocate dollars where they’re needed most.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lynne@thewritingdesk.com or (601) 853-3967.

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