A $75 million grant program established Monday by the Legislature for rural broadband is a great start addressing our state’s connectivity problem. In 2018, Mississippi’s broadband internet availability was just 70.2 percent, putting it just ahead of Montana as the second worst state in the country for internet access.
Last year, the Legislature took action to address the state’s broadband gaps by allowing rural electric cooperatives to offer internet service, but they forgot to address one big problem. Rural internet is very expensive.
According to OTELCO, a telecommunications company which provides fiber internet, the cost to bring fiber to a new area can be upwards of $20,000 per mile. In rural parts of our state, bringing internet to everyone would be an impossible cost to justify from a business standpoint.
At the same time, the federal government gives out billions in grants to telecommunications companies to expand broadband access. The problem is there is a lack of oversight, and multiple watchdog reports have found telecommunication giants opting to install less-expensive, lower speed DSL instead of high speed internet.
Then there is the problem of how broadband connectivity is measured. Through lobbying the Federal Communications Commission, the telecommunications giants have secured their ability to measure connectivity by census block instead of by street or household. If one customer in a census block, about 39 city blocks, has service, AT&T, Comcast or any other telecommunications company can say they offer service to that entire census block. Often, that is not the case.
With so many people working from home and students moving to distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a new focus on broadband connectivity, and I am proud to see our legislators taking action to address the shortfall.
I applaud our Senators and Representatives for passing the Mississippi Electric Cooperative Broadband Covid-19 Act to help fund greater internet access. It’s a great start, but if we’re serious about this – and we need to be – we need to look beyond Mississippi and work to address the problem at a national level as well.
You can contact Managing Editor Thomas Howard at email@example.com