Mississippi Receives Funding to Expand Rural Broadband

In an attempt to close the digital divide for many Mississippians, more than $800,000 in federal funding will be allocated for broadband expansion.

by Zack Orsborn, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Tupelo / September 4, 2015
Sen. Chris Walters of Putnam, W.Va., blames the state's steep topography for the lack of Internet infrastructure in rural areas. And that, he said, is why state government should get involved. Flickr/Mark Plummer

(MCT) -- Within a decade, Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley wants to see every house and business in Mississippi wired up with high-speed Internet service.

Presley announced Thursday at Guntown City Hall that more than $816,000 in federal funding will be expended by Frontier Communication to expand broadband service to rural areas in Guntown, Rienzi, Tishomingo and Houlka.

“In the year 2015, high-speed Internet service is just as important for Mississippians as bringing electricity almost was a century ago,” he said. “Folks who live in small town and rural areas deserve the same level as the Governor’s mansion in downtown Jackson.”

The five-year project, hoping to add 2,500 new high-speed Internet customers, should be complete by 2020. It will cost nearly $4 million dollars to complete.

After several years of collecting names and addresses of citizens without high-speed Internet, Presley received $188 million dollars in funding through the FCC for a technological overhaul in the state, including Internet service and cellphone coverage.

“As a state, we get in the top percentages of states throughout the country to have these types of subsidies to phone companies,” he said. “We’re not getting too much of this money. We’re not getting enough.”

Citizens asking for affordable high-speed Internet in their area is a top request the commissioner’s officer gets daily.

According to a 2013 Census report, Mississippi remains below the national average of users with high-speed Internet, with 62.3 percent of Mississippians having access to the service.

Mike Byrd, area general manager for southern properties at Frontier Communications, knew the task of offering high-speed Internet to more than 2,500 customers in rural areas would be a challenge, but he said it’s well worth the risk.

“The construction will start in 2016,” he said. “Our engineers are already working on planning and building the network. Within the next two years, we should be 40 percent complete.”

When a block of Rienzi’s downtown was engulfed in flames last year, Mayor Walter Williams believed faster Internet would have made life easier.

“It used to be TV and radio, but it’s so expensive,” he said. “With internet, you can reach out and touch people. You can bam, bam, bam, and the word is out.”

Currently, Rienzi’s school uses dial-up to access the Internet. Williams said he’s proud to take back good news to his city.

“I can see 10 years from now Rienzi will hopefully be a city of about 4,500 people,” he said. “With the Internet, it’s going to bring more and more. Most of the people are getting away from the big town and coming into smaller towns to get away from the rat race.”

Guntown Mayor Bud Herring said his city is a “bedroom community” where people who work in Tupelo like to live. Having access to high-speed Internet would help expand Guntown, he said.

“I hope that more people move into the area,” he said. “It’d create more opportunity for businesses in Guntown.”

©2015 the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (Tupelo, Miss.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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