The primary deadline to submit applications to a $75 million emergency broadband grant program passed last week and there are 30 applicants that want to bring service to underserved communities statewide.
This grant program was authorized after Gov. Tate Reeves signed into law Senate Bill 3046 and is designed to bring increased broadband service to areas that have been underserved or unserved areas that have been determined by the Public Utilities Staff using U.S. Federal Communications Commission data.
The maximum grant that can be received under the program is $6 million and dollar-for-dollar matching funds are required, which can be loans. Federal funds, such as the Universal Service Fund or Connect America Fund that are used for extending broadband service to rural areas, can’t be used as matching funds for the grants.
Eighteen electric power associations, known also as cooperatives, have applied for funds under the program. There are 26 of these non-profit EPAs statewide. The rest are rural water associations, rural telephone cooperatives (four) and existing broadband providers such as CSpire, CableSouth Media and Sparklight (former known as CableOne).
Each applicant had to certify, with the PUS, that the areas (available in census blocks here) they intend to serve are either underserved or without any broadband access. For example, CSpire’s application says it wants to use the funds to provide service to census blocks in rural parts of Hinds, Jefferson and Madison counties.
Funding for the grant program will come from the $1.25 billion the state received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed in March by Congress.
Primary applicant grantees will be notified on July 28 and funds will be disbursed by the state Department of Finance and Administration on July 31.
The deadline for secondary applications is July 29, with applicants notified by August 11 and funds to be disbursed by the DFA by August 14. The deadline for expenditure of grant funds is December 30.
Not all are happy with the new program. Retired Navy captain Todd Kiefer, who is the president of the North Lauderdale Water Association, said in a op-ed before the bill was signed into law that the definition of broadband, 100x100 megabits per second, was guaranteed to make the expansion of broadband slower and even more expensive since it's a very high standard for download/upload speed.
He also said that matching fund provision was illogical in a bill designed for emergency aid. Despite his misgivings, the North Lauderdale Water Association has applied to be part of the program.
According to data from the latest FCC wireless competition report from 2017, there is a digital divide 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.