By LISA MONTI
State and local officials are working to improve access to ultra-high-speed Internet service to residents, businesses and educational institutions along the Coast.
Backers say a redundant and public fiber optic ring will help the coastal cities and counties catch up with other cities and regions of the country and be more competitive in education, healthcare public safety and quality of life.
“We have natives of this area who have had to move away to work because they can’t receive the same level of high speed connectivity they can elsewhere – or they can’t afford the much higher prices here,” said Cliff Kirkland, Biloxi’s Civic Innovation and Development Officer. “ When we have this service in place along the Coast, those people can come home and create new businesses and new jobs here in their hometowns. It will open doors for all of our citizens and create greater opportunities for advancement.”
So far all the cities in Harrison County — Biloxi, Gulfport, D’Iberville, Long Beach and Pass Christian — along with Diamondhead in Hancock County have signed on to join the Gulf Coast Broadband Initiative.
“We anticipate the other two cities, Waveland, Bay St. Louis, in Hancock County to join soon, as well as the cities in Jackson County,” said Kirkland. “Our goal is to have all 12 Mississippi Coast cities and the three Coastal counties to share membership in the GCBI.”
Workshops are being held for the other local government officials to explain the benefits of the project and gain their support. Workshops for the new boards of supervisors in the three counties will be held after the new year.
Gov. Phil Bryant pledged $15 million from BP oil spill settlement funds for the broadband expansion across the Coast and he invited Biloxi Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich to help lead the project. Gilich enlisted the help of Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes to get all the local governments involved in the effort. Kirkland said.
“Everyone expressed support for the idea of pursuing a minimum one-gig Internet service in a timely, affordable and universal fashion,” Kirkland said.
He called ultra-high-speed Internet connectivity the community infrastructure of the future.
“It allows anyone anywhere to connect with the rest of the aworld in real time, it enables us to keep pace with advances in education, health, public safety and quality of life, and it allows us to compete on equal footing with the rest of the country and the world in economic development,” he said.
The GCBI members will own the fiber optic ring and the individual member governments will negotiate with Internet service providers such as cable and telephone companies to take the service from the ring to residents, businesses and other users.
The franchise agreements with the ISPs would provide the capital to fund operations and maintenance, Kirkland said.
“Additionally, the GCBI would pursue other state funds beyond the $15 million, and federal funds, too. Any additional money would be used to help build the fiber optic infrastructure from the ring to the curbs, thereby reducing costs for ISPs and providing a corresponding saving in user fees for customers.”
Bryant recently announced the first installment of $5 million toward broadband expansion across the Coast, with an expectation of “up to $10 million more” in subsequent allotments.
“The GCBI has already requested that the state provide that $5 million and any future state funds to the local initiative so that it can begin construction of the public fiber optic ring. We are awaiting the Governor’s response,” Kirkland said.
Federal funding and grants also will be pursued, he said.
“We are already behind the curve with our competitors across the country and we can’t afford to wait for private companies to eventually offer this level of broadband service at non-competitive prices,” said Kirkland.
“Our goal is to create a competitive marketplace that will assure saturation coverage in a timely and affordable manner.”