JACKSON • State lawmakers recently passed a bill that would set aside $75 million for electric cooperatives and other service providers to service broadband internet to underserved areas, many of which are in rural areas of the state.
Both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature last week passed Senate Bill 3046, or the COVID-19 Connectivity Act, which establishes the COVID-19 Broadband Provider Grant Program Fund. No lawmaker from either chamber voted against the bill.
“We are now going to start a very good process to get Internet to the most rural areas of the state,” said state Rep. C. Scott Bounds, a Republican from Philadelphia, who presented the bill in the House.
The funds in the bill stem from federal coronavirus relief funds. The bill will set aside $65 million in funds to go toward electric cooperatives, and $10 million would be set aside for other internet providers who want to provide broadband to rural or underserved areas.
Potential providers must use the Federal Communication Commission’s census block map for eligible underserved areas. To receive the grant funds, electric cooperatives and other providers would have to apply through the Mississippi Public Utilities Staff.
“Applicants applying for the funds must use those funds for immediate deployment of broadband services of underserved areas,” said state Sen. Joel Carter, the Republican chairman of the Senate Energy Committee.
Providers would have a year to service potential customers with broadband. The primary application would be due on July 17 and the primary grant dollars would be distributed on July 31. All dollars must be spent by Dec. 30.
The maximum amount of dollars a provider could receive is $6 million, and providers would have to match every dollar that is received. For example, if a broadband provider received $6 million in grant money, the provider would also have to provide $6 million of its own funds to serve broadband to potential customers.
“We have a chance right now with this grant program and the dollars committed to lead rural America,” Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley said.
The bill states that providers must service broadband that has at least 100 megabits per second of download speed. The bill states that there will also be an opportunity for a secondary round of applications and any money left over from the grant fund will be transferred to the state’s unemployment compensation fund.
Presley, a Democratic commissioner, said that almost every county in Northeast Mississippi likely has underserved areas that this grant money could be used for.
“This is going to have a massive ripple effect in rural Mississippi,” Presley said.