Unless you live or work in an area without access to high-speed internet, it’s hard to imagine how important the issue of expanding broadband access is to so many communities across Mississippi.
This issue is a major challenge for many parts of our state, and even during the incredible challenges we are facing this year, adversity is being turned into opportunity when it comes to bringing faster, more reliable internet services to people who need it.
In 2018, I began seeking solutions about why workforce development is such a big challenge in our state. I discovered a variety of obstacles and they were vastly different issues depending on whether you lived in the north part of Mississippi or on the Gulf Coast. One of the disparities that stood out by geography was the difference in access to broadband internet service.
Coming from the Gulf Coast–an area that fortunately has several broadband options–during I did not realize how important it truly is. I quickly learned that not only was a lack of high-speed internet a hurdle to workforce development, but it is a major hindrance to everyday life for multiple reasons.
Broadband is a factor in everyone’s life whether it’s education, health care, economic development, transportation or just about any other aspect of our lives. Clearly, this is a massive and expensive challenge that cannot be solved overnight. To provide broadband access to the entire state, hundreds of millions of dollars would be needed for the technology and infrastructure required. Fiber optic cable deployment brings the most reliable broadband speed and it’s very expensive, but also necessary to expand.
In January, 2020, I was appointed by Lt. Governor Delbert Hosemann to become the new Chairman of the Mississippi Senate Energy Committee. I was given an opportunity to do something about the issue of broadband that I had been studying for several years. Shortly after I began serving as Chairman of the Energy Committee, the pandemic hit our state and nation. Congress then passed the CARES Act in late March to provide financial relief to help small businesses, health care providers and state governments cope with the economic damages brought on by COVID-19. The CARES Act also presented an opportunity to address broadband access since distance learning and telemedicine were immediately becoming key priorities in a time of shutdowns and people sheltering in place. Without fast, reliable internet service, distance learning and telemedicine are simply not possible.
With the help of Lt. Governor Hosemann and his staff, we had to find a quick solution to improve broadband that could help as many Mississippians as possible. Working alongside our counterparts in the House and with companies in the energy sector and internet service providers, we developed real solutions. With the funds available to Mississippi from the CARES Act, we focused on solving the broadband problem, especially in rural areas.
Working with all parties involved, we developed a consensus plan involving the Electric Power Associations of Mississippi. They provide electricity to thousands of Mississippians, mostly in rural parts of the state–the same areas who lack broadband internet access.
On July 9, 2020, the Mississippi Electric Cooperatives Broadband COVID-19 Act became law. This established a grant program of $75 million requiring a dollar for dollar match–leveraging $150 million now being invested, targeting unserved and underserved areas of Mississippi. Work is already underway and by the end of 2021, this program will result in 4700 additional miles of fiber providing access to nearly 46,000 citizens.
With the challenges of 2020, bringing more high-speed internet to Mississippi is one bright spot. Progress is being made, but there’s more work to do. We’ve identified other entities that already have fiber in place in different parts of the state but are not currently using it and may want to lease it to internet service providers. Overall, bringing more broadband internet throughout Mississippi must be a team effort and it will take a spirit of cooperation to solve this challenge. I am encouraged by the work that’s been done so far. I am also optimistic that what appeared to be an unachievable goal just a couple of years ago is now an issue we can resolve in a very positive way in the near future.