When people say getting broadband to rural America today is akin to bringing electricity to these areas in the 1930s, it’s a bit of an exaggeration.
Living without electricity meant using candles or kerosene lamps for light. It meant using blocks of ice for refrigeration. It meant being completely miserable in the heat of summer.
No one under the age of 90 will remember what that was like.
Most of us, though, can remember what it was like to do without high-speed internet. If you had to communicate quickly, you did it by telephone. Research meant a trip to the library. If you wanted to watch a newly released movie from home, you might have to wait several months before it became available.
Living without broadband, in other words, was a cake walk when compared to living without electricity.
Hyperbole aside, it is critical for Mississippi to expand broadband access if it wants to remain competitive in business and grow its population. Companies are not going to want to locate where internet connections are slow or erratic. Nor will people.
Thus, it’s been a smart move by Mississippi to create an agency with the sole focus of expanding the reach of high-speed internet, picking up the initiative that before now had come largely from the state’s Public Service Commission. The Office of Broadband Expansion and Accessibility of Mississippi (BEAM) has been given the responsibility of directing large amounts of federal dollars to expand high-speed access across the state.
There is bad news and good news about the present state of broadband in Mississippi.
The bad news: The state has the third-worst broadband coverage in the nation, with an estimated 7% of households and businesses lacking even one provider.
The good news: It’s only 7%. One would have thought, given Mississippi’s highly rural makeup, that it would have been higher than that.
The financial enticement in recent years to get rural electricity providers, such as Greenwood-based Delta Electric Power Association, into the high-speed internet business is obviously working well. The concept made sense. The power companies had the poles and other infrastructure already in place to reach areas where the population is spread out. They just needed a push from the federal government to get them past their hesitation.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have provided that push.
Since 2020, Mississippi has been awarded almost $340 million by the federal government to expand broadband, not just for reaching currently unserved areas but also for increasing the speeds in areas without the latest fiber technology. About two-thirds of the money has come from coronavirus relief funds, the other third from the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed Congress late last year.
If that’s not enough to get high-speed internet to every house and business in Mississippi willing and able to pay for it, it’s got to be close.