Broadband access is spreading fast

When people say bringing broadband to rural America today is comparable to powering those areas in the 1930s, that’s a bit of an exaggeration.

Living without electricity meant using candles or kerosene lamps for light. It meant using blocks of ice for cooling. It meant being utterly miserable in the heat of summer.

No one under the age of 90 will remember what that was like.

However, most of us can remember what it was like to be without high-speed Internet. If it had to be done quickly, it was done over the phone. Research meant going to the library. If you want to watch a newly released movie from the comfort of your own home, you may have to wait several months for it to become available.

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In other words, living without broadband was a cinch compared to living without electricity.

Exaggeration aside, expanding broadband access is crucial for Mississippi if it is to remain competitive in business and grow its population. Businesses won’t want where Internet connections are slow or erratic. neither do people.

So it was a smart move by Mississippi to create an agency focused solely on expanding the reach of high-speed Internet, seizing on the initiative that had previously largely come from the state’s Public Service Commission. The Mississippi Bureau of Broadband Development and Accessibility (BEAM) has been given the responsibility of directing large sums of federal dollars to expand high-speed access statewide.

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There is good and bad news about the current state of broadband coverage in Mississippi.

The bad news: The state has the third worst broadband coverage in the country, with an estimated 7% of homes and businesses not even having a provider.

The good news: it’s only 7%. One would have thought, given Mississippi’s very rural nature, that it would have been higher.

The financial incentive of recent years to tie rural electric utilities like the Greenwood-based Delta Electric Power Association into the high-speed Internet business appears to be working well. The concept made sense. The power companies already had the pylons and other infrastructure in place to reach areas where the population is dispersed. They only needed a nudge from the federal government to overcome their hesitation.

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Hundreds of millions of dollars provided this impetus.

Since 2020, Mississippi has received nearly $340 million from the federal government to expand broadband, not only to reach currently unserved areas, but also to increase speeds in areas without the latest fiber optic technology. About two-thirds of the money will come from coronavirus relief funds, with the other third coming from the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by Congress late last year.

If that’s not enough to bring high-speed Internet to every home and business in Mississippi willing and able to pay for it, it must be close.

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