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Wrangling broadband tough, but getting easier in Mississippi

Communities in a dozen Mississippi counties will soon benefit from enhanced access to broadband Internet technology as a result of a $56.8-million USDA Rural Development loan to Memphis-based Poplar PCS, LLC.

“High-speed Internet connections are important to individuals and businesses in our state, and this funding will lead to greater economic opportunity and growth in these communities,” said Sen. Thad Cochran, head of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which ushered the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, earmarking $150 million for technological improvements in rural America.

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman announced in May the loan to Poplar was one of 20 rural broadband and telecommunication loans totaling $190 million. USDA Rural Development’s traditional telecommunications loan program provided the balance of $40 million. Since the beginning of the Bush Administration, USDA Rural Development has allocated $2 billion in telecommunications funding, providing more than 771,000 rural homes and businesses with access to high-speed broadband connections.

“President Bush is committed to ensuring that every household in America has access to broadband by 2007,” said USDA state director Nick Walters. “We are working to make sure that Mississippi’s rural communities don’t get left behind. This technology is crucial to economic and community development in those areas.”

Poplar PCS president Stephen Roberts, a Brandon native, whose business partner is Vance native Will Yandell, said more than $8 million would be spent constructing a wireless broadband system in historically underserved communities of 20,000 or less in Adams, Alcorn, Chickasaw, Clay, Lee, Lowndes, Monroe, Noxubee, Pontotoc, Prentiss, Union and Webster counties. Eleven counties are located in northeastern Mississippi; Adams County lies in the southwestern part of the state. Pontotoc is the pilot community in Mississippi to receive broadband under this loan, with service anticipated in early 2005.

The balance of the loan will be invested in similar-size communities in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Oklahoma. The entire project should be complete by the end of 2006, said Roberts.

“We’ve identified 15 eligible towns in Mississippi where we’ll be deploying high-speed broadband and also an integrated voice component (Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP), so for one payment, the customer can browse the Internet and talk on their phone,” said Roberts. “It’s a big value proposition.

“We expect throughput rates of up to 1.5 Mbs (megabits per second) per user. We will offer plans that allow the customer to choose the speed and price point he or she wants.”

Walters recently met with community leaders in Iuka, who want to bring high-speed broadband access to Tishomingo County. “It’s a hot commodity,” he said. “They have some DSL, but nothing in outlying areas.”

Pontotoc Mayor Bill Rutledge said Poplar PCS has already contacted community members, who are “very enthusiastic” about the new service.

“This will put us in a better competitive state for the recruitment of business and industry,” he said. “Having high-speed access to the Internet and broadband service — our way of communicating with the rest of the world — is vital. We currently have DSL only at Three Rivers Planning and Development District, the county courthouse, the city, and the jail. It’s just in bits and pieces around.”

Even though BellSouth has deployed DSL (digital subscriber line) service in many small communities in Mississippi, DSL customers must live within three miles of a central office or other major wiring center, such as a remote terminal.

“We’ll typically locate on towers we build or lease, over 200 feet high, for maximum amount of coverage per base station,” he said. “We’re working hard on deploying an easy-to-install, non-line-of-sight technology. We’re very excited about this opportunity. To be able to provide this leading edge telecom product in rural communities is very unusual.”

Matt Thornton, vice president of innovation and resource development for the Mississippi Technology Alliance, helped connect the parties involved with Poplar PCS “to explore potential synergies.”

“Everyone’s working together to bring high-speed Internet access to rural Mississippi,” he said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.


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