Lawmakers are looking into using some of the $1.8 billion in federal funds received by the state into expanding broadband service into rural communities.
The Mississippi Senate Energy Committee held the first of two hearings on Wednesday on broadband and heard from both the Public Service Commission and the separate Public Utilities Staff, along with a representative of one of the state’s landline telephone companies.
Broadband is defined by the Federal Communications Commission as a minimum speed of 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload.
On March 11, 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan, which provided $350 billion in aid to state and local governments nationwide. Gov. Tate Reeves also wants to spend $200 million of these funds on broadband, according to his executive budget recommendation.
Public Utilities Staff executive director Sally Doty told the committee about the $75 million grant program her agency managed last year. The Broadband COVID-19 Grant Program, which was created by this bill signed into law by Gov. Tate Reeves, issued grants from federal COVID-19 relief funds to 15 non-profit electric associations and four broadband service providers.
She said the program resulted in 5,841 miles of fiber installed, extending service to 17,000 households. Also, 15 fixed wireless towers were installed using the grant that extended service to 300 households.
“I think it’s been life-changing for those folks in rural Mississippi,” Doty said.
in 2019, the Legislature passed the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act, which allowed the co-ops the opportunity once they conducted a feasibility study to provide broadband to their customers.
Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley told the committee that the state needs betters service maps that show underserved or unserved areas than the ones provided by the FCC.
He also said that SpaceX, which is the provider for the satellite-based Starlink internet service, has yet to appear meet with the commission.
“They’re holding up this docket because they’ve not satisfied the FCC with their network and the FCC has not designated them for federal funds, therefore the states have not designated them for federal funds,” Presley said.
He also said the co-ops’ fiberoptic lines weathered both Hurricane Ida and last year’s February ice storm without any issues.
SpaceX received $885 million in grants to bring broadband service to rural areas nationwide, including some parts of Mississippi, from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which awards funds to internet service providers through an auction process.
In December 2020, it was announced that Mississippi will be receiving $495.7 million in federal funds from the RDOF.
Presley also said the definition of broadband should be increased to one gigabit per second from the 25 Mbps per second standard and future buildouts in Mississippi need to adhere to that standard.
ISPs serving Mississippi will receive more funds than all but one state, California. There will be 218,990 locations served by the 12 auction winners.
The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund supports broadband infrastructure over a 10-year period, with providers required to reach all assigned locations by the end of the sixth year. Incentives in the program encourage rapid buildup of broadband infrastructure, which is defined by the FCC program as 25 megabits per second download speed or faster.
Since 2016, there have been $710 million in federal grants awarded to internet service providers in Mississippi under the Connect America Program.
Mississippi has already received $75 million in federal CARES Act funds to help extend broadband service to unserved or underserved areas this year.
According to data from the most recent FCC wireless competition report from 2017, the digital divide has become a serious problem in the Magnolia State. 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.