The Mississippi Legislature could be considering legislation in the upcoming session to provide financial incentives to providers to bring broadband service to underserved areas statewide.
Central District Public Service Commissioner Brent Bailey, state representatives C. Scott Bounds, R-Philadelphia, and Stephanie Foster, D-Jackson spoke at on online town hall Tuesday about expanding broadband access to underserved rural areas of the state.
Bounds said a potential program would allow broadband providers to apply for grants, much like Alabama and Tennessee, which have similar programs. He also said the Legislature could consider allowing the state’s two investor-owned utilities, Entergy and Mississippi Power, to partner with a provider to use their existing infrastructure to provide broadband service as well.
Bailey said that the state could potentially receive about $940 million from the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity fund for providers to expand broadband access.
“From a policy and a resource level, we’re going to have to be creative,” said Bounds, who chairs the House’s Public Utilities Committee. “It’s going to take a lot of money. We’re talking not hundreds of millions of dollars, but billions.”
CSpire’s Chris Champion said it costs their company $60,000 per mile to lay fiber optic cable.
The company was one of 19 recipients that received $75 million in federal CARES Act funds to help extend broadband service in unserved or underserved rural areas and operates nearly 10,000 miles of fiber optic cable statewide. One of the requirements is that providers must have dollar-for-dollar matching funds.
These funds were disbursed primarily to non-profit rural electric power associations, better known as cooperatives, to help them set up broadband service.
Finding where the unserved and underserved isn’t easy for providers and policymakers.
The Federal Communications Commission’s service maps — which show the availability of broadband service in an area — have been criticized as being inaccurate and Bounds said the state could draw their own coverage maps.
“We’re going to do the mapping at the state level and provide more accurate data for providers as well,” Bounds said. “If we can get a more accurate map, we can better identify where the unserved areas are.”
In addition to the CARES Act funds and RDOF, the federal government has been bankrolling broadband infrastructure grants with several programs.
Connect America is one of several funding streams administered by the FCC for connecting underserved rural areas, including the Alternative-Connect America Cost Model program and the Rural Broadband Experiment project, along with a separate program for Alaska.
Providers adding or improving broadband service in Mississippi have received more than $710 million in grants under these various programs since 2016.
AT&T has received $66.5 million in 2016, $126.6 million in 2017, $180.2 million in 2018 and $230 million in 2019 under the Connect America program to bring service to more than 318,000 locations in Mississippi.
Funds are dispersed under the auction format and AT&T wasn’t the only company to receive federal funds, as C-Spire received $41.8 million to extend service to 17,089 customers. TEC, which is a conglomerate of six rural telephone companies in Alabama and Mississippi, received $24.7 million to expand broadband service in the Magnolia State.
There have been two A-CAM programs, with firms expanding broadband access to Mississippi receiving more than $553,000 in A-CAM I and more than $99.6 million for A-CAM II. A-CAM was designated to bring broadband service (defined by the FCC as having a speed of 25/3 megabits per second or better) to underserved areas.
According to data from the last FCC wireless competition report from 2017, the digital divide is a definite problem in Mississippi. Ninety-five percent of urban residents in Mississippi have access to high-speed internet service (defined as 25 megabits per second or faster).
In rural areas, only half of residents have access to that level of internet service. In 12 of the state’s 82 counties, 5 percent of the population or less has access to high-speed internet.
In 27 counties, only 25 percent or less of the population has high-speed internet service available.