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Groups look to boost broadband service availability

ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — As the federal government aims to bring broadband capability to as many Americans as possible, various groups in Mississippi are ramping up their efforts to bring the technology to those who don’t have it.

The Federal Communications Commission recently announced it is revamping its Connect America Fund to give high-speed Internet capability to seven million people in rural or economically disadvantaged areas across the country in the next six years.

And the need for better Internet access is great in Mississippi. FCC figures indicate about a third of the state’s rural population of roughly 1.5 million people lack high-speed Internet access.

“It’s a natural process” to expand broadband, said independent telecommunications analyst Jeff Kagan. “This was bound to happen, as most (people) move away from landline service to wireless service.”

Many people, especially in largely rural, poor states like Mississippi, can’t afford a computer or the capability to upgrade Internet speed.

Clinton resident Jacque Bailey said Internet service is fine at her home computer. For many people in Bolton, where she operates a hair salon, the situation is different.

“A lot of people here can’t get high-speed Internet,” she said, adding the kind of upgrade the FCC is eyeing is much needed.

Jefferson County has the highest rate of people without access to broadband at 95.2 percent, according to the FCC. George County has the best access at 6 percent.

Twelve counties have at least 70 percent of their rural population without high-speed Internet access, while just six had rates of less than 10 percent, including Hinds, Madison and Rankin counties.

A 2009 World Bank report estimated an area’s economy could grow by 1.3 percent for every 10-percentage-point increase in high-speed Internet use.

In Mississippi, that would translate to $150 million in revenue with a 20 percent usage increase, according to the nonprofit Mississippi Broadband Connect Coalition.

Businesses these days are looking at connectivity just as much as infrastructure and workforce availability when selecting a site, said Joe Max Higgins Jr., CEO of the Columbus-Lowndes Development Link.

The Lowndes County area has attracted dozens of companies to the area in recent years. PACCAR’s commercial truck engine manufacturing plant, which opened in 2010 in Columbus, needed the ability to connect electronically with other plants in the company’s network so they could freely communicate in a matter of seconds, he said.

“Today’s economic development is done with an iPad as much as anything else,” Higgins said.

The Connect America Fund will be capped at $4.5 billion annually and will be funded by existing surcharges on monthly phone bills. It will include $500 million dedicated to building mobile broadband networks in areas currently lacking them.

The FCC has said ratepayers shouldn’t pay any extra in surcharges to fund the expansion.

People in some parts of the state are getting creative in how they use technology while awaiting larger-scale improvements.

Some Delta farmers use “precision farming,” in which a satellite beams information to computers aboard tractors indicating which parts of their fields might need more of a particular chemical, said Bubba Weir, vice president for innovation resource development for the Mississippi Technology Alliance.

The MTA is a nonprofit that promotes technology-based economic development.

“Rural areas are the ones that are using broadband the least, but there are particular parts of the population” in those areas that have access and others that don’t, Weir said.

Along with economic development, broadband can improve the quality of life for residents, supporters say.

For Mississippi’s seniors Internet access can save them money by using computers for everyday needs instead of traveling many miles for things like non-essential doctor appointments or shopping trips, Weir said.

He recalled having trouble with his lawnmower. Instead of going to a hardware store to figure out how to fix the problem, he sat at his computer desk and researched.

“Within 15 minutes, I had my lawnmower fixed,” he said.

A number of efforts are under way in Mississippi to bring broadband to more people.

The Mississippi Broadband Connect Coalition is developing a strategic plan to bring improved Internet access to more areas of the state. The group includes more than 150 people, including business and community leaders, representatives of state agencies and others.

It’s met about three-dozen times and is scheduled to unveil its recommendations — and ways to implement them — Nov. 29 in an event at the Jackson Convention Complex.

“The more connectivity a community has, the better the economic impact, productivity, quality of life,” said Jason Dean, the coalition’s managing director.

The Mississippi State University’s Extension Service will begin in January hosting classes, distance-learning sessions and webinars teaching digital literacy.

With Mississippi boasting a large population of both senior citizens and recent high-school dropouts, there are many people who can better position themselves through sharpened computer skills, said Bo Beaulieu, director of MSU’s Southern Rural Development Center.

He feels the FCC’s effort will successfully dovetail with his goals.

“We’re the fourth-most-rural state in the country, so this has a lot of implications for us, positive implications,” he said.

C Spire Wireless recently announced its own broadband expansion, which will cover 1.3 million consumers and businesses in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee.

Many of the areas in Mississippi where the carrier plans to offer new or expanded service are mostly rural, company spokesman Dave Miller said.

He said broadband will be available in up to 90 percent of the company’s service area after the expansion.

“Wireless is now ubiquitous, and the expectation is, from businesses and individuals, that your (mobile) devices will work anywhere,” he said.

Comcast spokeswoman Frances Smith said the company is evaluating its next move in light of the FCC’s announcement but supports the idea of broadband expansion.

Kagan said a balance must be struck in introducing broadband to one area and upgrading it in another.

That’s especially important, he said, because the quality of a carrier’s broadband can vary from place to place.

“All carriers should work well here,” he said from his hometown of Atlanta between several call drops. “But in individual spots, some are going to have advantages over others.”

“The more connectivity a community has, the better the economic impact, productivity, quality of life.”


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