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Bringing broadband to rural Mississippi is gaining steam

If they gave a national Internet user party and invited only 10 people per state who were a representative sample of each state, only six people from Mississippi could attend. That is because Mississippi has a 59.3 percent Internet penetration rate, the lowest in the United States. It also has the lowest broadband, or high-speed, Internet usage rate. Thanks to national funding and rapidly growing public policy implementation that may be about to change.

Among the reasons that Mississippi has the lowest Internet penetration rate are low population density and low education level, two of the more often-cited factors to explain why Mississippians have not embraced Internet usage to the extent of that of the rest of the country. Advocates of Internet use cite lack of availability as the main reason there is not higher usage in the Magnolia state. Providers say that there is not enough demand to justify the cost of offering Internet service, especially high-speed Internet service.  It is because of the latter reason that the federal government is bestowing millions of dollars on Mississippi to make the availability of the Internet a reality for all.

On Aug. 5, 2010 it was announced three companies in South Mississippi were awarded grants to bring broadband to their rural areas. Southeast Mississippi Telephone Company in Leakesville was awarded approximately $1.875 million. With an additional $625,000 of outside capital, the company will bring high-speed DSL broadband service to underserved establishments within its rural service territory. According to the USDA, Southeast Mississippi Telephone’s project stands to benefit approximately 1,428 people, 12 businesses and five other community institutions. Calhoun City Telephone Company Inc. was awarded approximately $2.962 million. With an additional $987,000, the company will bring high-speed DSL broadband service to unserved establishments within its rural service territory. According to the USDA, Calhoun City Telephone’s project stands to benefit approximately 1,300 people, 25 businesses and eight community institutions.  Windstream Corporation, based in Little Rock, Ark., was awarded approximately $1 million. With an additional $335,189, Windstream will extend its broadband network to provide broadband to many currently unserved homes and businesses. According to the USDA, Windstream’s project stands to benefit approximately 2,750 people, 25 businesses and five other community institutions.

On Sept. 30, 2010, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack  announced a $2.63-million award that will allow The Digital Bridge Corporation to bring affordable, fourth-generation broadband services to rural portions of Panola and Quitman counties lacking high-speed access. The press release said, “The network stands to benefit approximately 18,200 people, more than 1,300 businesses, and 87 community institutions where 74 percent of the premises are without high-speed access. The project will cover 191 square miles.”

Also on Sept. 30, the governor announced that part of a $5 million federal grant will be used “… to collect and verify the availability, speed and location of broadband statewide.”  At the same time he announced the formation of the Mississippi Broadband Connect Coalition, a public/private partnership.

According to an Aug. 2009 report by the USDA Economic Research Service titled “Broadband Internet’s Value for Rural America,” an estimated 55 percent of U.S. adults had broadband access at home in 2008, but only 41 percent of adults in rural households had broadband access. The report stated, “Evidence suggests that some of this shortfall in broadband use is involuntary, and may be due to the higher cost of broadband provision or lower returns to broadband investment in sparsely populated areas.”

Lack of broadband is of particular importance to people of color according to a Febr. 2010 report titled “Broadband in the Mississippi Delta: A 21st Century Racial Justice Issue,” which was issued by the Center for Social Inclusion and the Mississippi Conference of the NAACP.  It found the following:

> People of color are the majority in zip codes with zero access to high-speed Internet.

> Mississippi’s Second Congressional Districts has the largest population of people of color and the lowest levels of broadband access.

> Broadband builds the economy. Therefore, poor communities of color are less able to build their economies or the state and national economy.

> Zip codes with eight or more Internet providers average 811 businesses. Those without high-speed internet access have a mere 7 businesses on average. Zip codes with eight or more Internet providers average 13,212 jobs. Job opportunities in places with one, two or even three Internet providers are a mere fraction of that, with an average of 646 jobs.

> Of the 124 applications for expanding broadband access in Mississippi, 87 were rejected and 37 are still awaiting a decision.

While the emphasis right now seems to be on funding of infrastructure to access the Internet this writer is in hopes that there will be some effort to make Mississippians aware of the benefits of high-speed access to the Internet so that they will use it in a productive manner, not just for entertainment purposes.  In the current economy job searches and home businesses become more critical for households. Also, more and more education offerings are done online. There is even one graduate business school in Mississippi that has more online students than resident students.

In the final analysis the biggest challenge may be to get Mississippians to use high-speed Internet once it is available.

Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government in Jackson. Contact him at phil@philhardwick.com.


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