Mississippi BEAD director credits electric co-ops for reaching rural

The most rural parts of Mississippi are home to expansive agricultural lands with low residential density and until recent years, little incentive for internet service providers (ISPs) to build broadband infrastructure.

Homes in the Mississippi Delta — the state’s most untenanted area — have typically used satellite service to make do, according to Sally Doty, a former state senator who was last year appointed as Director of the new Broadband Expansion and Accessibility of Mississippi (BEAM) office. The Delta’s flat land without much tree cover has been fertile ground for mostly fixed wireless, but not at the speeds that are “truly required for modern communication,” she told Fierce Telecom. 

As the federal government’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) funding nears deployment, the BEAM office is leading the charge to make broadband more affordable and accessible in Mississippi, especially those low-density areas Doty refers to as her “problem children.”  

Through BEAM's mapping efforts Doty estimates the state has almost 1.4 million serviceable broadband locations (those capable of 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload speeds), with about 300,000 that are completely unserved and 211,000 that are considered “underserved.” Similar to feedback from other state officials, Doty noted that the FCC’s Mississippi map is somewhat inaccurate.  

BEAM’s number of unserved locations doesn’t take into account some spots where federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) grants have been awarded. (There are a good number of RDOF build-outs that have not begun, although according to Doty their milestones should be coming up in 2024.) 

That unserved number also doesn’t consider locations that will benefit from $162 million in Capital Project Fund (CPF) projects, for which the BEAM office received approval for this week. These pending projects will bring the number of unserved locations in Mississippi down to about 225,000, Doty said. 

Miss. Broadband locations

The BEAM office is also currently administering a federal Broadband Infrastructure Program (BIP) grant of $32.6 million, working with local providers to focus on unserved areas like the Delta. BIP has projects in the counties of Calhoun, Coahoma, Covington, Issaquena, Lincoln, Madison and Smith. 

Doty said Mississippi has made great progress through these programs. A “tremendous” amount of that work should be attributed to Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi, she added, which has been building out infrastructure through its Connect Rural Mississippi campaign.  

Mississippi took $75 million in Cares Act funding in 2020, and the state legislature decided to appropriate the “majority” of that money to the Electric Co-ops. 

“If you recall with that funding, there was a lot of gray area. We weren't exactly sure that the guidance surrounding it would allow for broadband expansion,” Doty said. “But we knew there was such a need in Mississippi that we kind of forged ahead with that and our Co-ops really came to the table, took a risk and said, ‘we can do it.’” 

Mississippi readies for BEAD 

The very low-density areas of Mississippi, those that providers “are just not interested in,” are what will have to be addressed with BEAD, Doty said. She is hoping the state’s BEAD funding will fall within the ballpark of $1 billion, although like every other state Mississippi will have to wait for June 30th to know their exact allocation.  

Whether higher or lower than the $1 billion mark, Mississippi will “spend every bit of it,” Doty added, for those unserved areas, but also to reach into some underserved areas.

Mississippi is filled with small towns, the kind that have “just one red light.” Those towns are often underserved, with many contemporary efforts to build out infrastructure centered around entirely unserved broadband deserts. 

Homes in underserved areas might have some sort of cable provider. “A few people still have AT&T DSL,” Doty said. "What's about to happen in Mississippi is our rural areas through Co-ops are going to have lightning-fast, gig-speed internet, and if you live in town, you're not going to have that fast service.” 

That said, the biggest BEAD focus for Doty’s office will be on how to most efficiently use those funds across Mississippi. “We can reach out to those unserved areas, but also have the money for the underserved areas,” she added.  

BEAM is working with Bell Labs Consulting to use data modeling to understand how best to use BEAD’s funding. 

Low take rates will be a challenge

Once broadband is available, getting Mississippians to actually use the services might be the biggest barrier to widespread adoption.

“Our take rate is going to be a challenge,” Doty said. “We have a lot of folks who have not had access to high-speed internet and who have used the phone for everything. And the phone is a wonderful tool, but you really need high speed internet at your home.” 

Even with some support from programs like Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) and “some pretty good cost plans from providers,” Mississippi is having difficulty with take rates. Providers have pointed out conflicts between lifeline services and ACP, where one household cannot be eligible for both affordability programs.

Doty said this discrepancy should prompt conversations with federal partners as to how those two programs work together.

Getting Mississippians the right education on broadband and its benefits will also be key. BEAM is administering federal Digital Equity grants, which the office has renamed as its Digital Skills and Accessibility Plan, aimed at working with community groups to help people understand the benefits of having high-speed internet at their home, for example.

The Mississippi Broadband Association (MSBA) — a standalone organization that assists broadband expansion efforts through member services, community engagement and procedure committees — has worked closely with BEAM in providing broadband training so that the state has a workforce ready to install and manage these networks moving forward.

“We are working on getting more curriculum in the K-12 sector and with a strong partnership with our community colleges. We have a strong community college system and [Doty] and I really want to push that community college system to make sure that we're training our people,” said MSBA Executive Director Quinn Jordan during a recent Fiber Broadband Association webinar.

A campaign is needed to help people in Mississippi understand that in the future, “most if not all activities in how your home will be run will be web-based,” Jordan added. “It may not be tomorrow, maybe not next month, but it's coming to where the reliability of connectivity is not going to be an option. It's going to be a requirement.”

Getting people in what is a "low per capita income" state ahead of the curve will be instrumental in preparing them to budget for these services and self-advocate with ISPs to make sure that there are high-speed yet affordable options.

And broadband is going to be “so important” to Mississippi’s economy, Jordan noted, where small businesses and consumers are becoming increasingly reliant on online digital sales. According to him, the state has seen an outflux of workers to states where they can "make more money.”

“We've been losing a lot of our talent to other areas,” Jordan said. "The indirect economic impact of broadband services is going to be that we're able to retain those individuals. Therefore, their salaries are reinvested back here in Mississippi, into their communities.”

All in all, the investment into broadband is an investment into the “Mississippi dream,” Jordan added, making the state a better place to live for people that “want to move out of the major cities, the hustle and bustle, and yet still be able to participate nationally and globally in a workforce.”