How Coronavirus Stimulus Funds Helped One State Create a ‘broadband miracle’ – When Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and lawmakers in the Mississippi legislature got $1.2 billion in federal money from the first stimulus bill in March, they decided to do something different. They used a portion of the funds to supercharge the rollout of high-speed broadband to the most underserved areas of the state in an effort to close the digital divide.
They went to rural electric co-ops — private, independent electric utilities owned by the members they serve — many of which were left gobsmacked by the offer, according to David O’Bryan, general manager of Delta Electric Power Association, which now serves Carroll and Grenada counties with broadband. Many of these co-ops had been preparing to deploy networks but lacked the cash to begin a major project, especially in the most remote and sparsely populated parts of their territories.
The result has been an acceleration in a broadband deployment that could make Mississippi one of the most connected states in the nation within the next five to six years. That’s a huge leap for the state, which last year ranked 42 out of 50 in BroadbandNow’s 2020 connectivity rankings. The Federal Communications Commission says that at least 35% of rural Mississippians lack access to broadband.
While the dilemma of the broadband gap is complicated by faulty data, the progress shown in Mississippi illustrates how the right combination of money and public policy can bridge the digital divide, an encouraging sign as President Joe Biden prepares to unveil details of his $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which is expected to include $20 billion for building broadband networks. Mississippi is one of half a dozen states that used federal funding from the CARES Act in this way, serving as a possible template for how to solve this problem across the country.
In recent months, I’ve told anyone who is willing to listen about the broadband miracle in Mississippi,” said Jonathan Chambers, CEO of Conexon, a Washington-based consulting firm, which works with electric co-ops looking to deliver rural broadband service. “The speed of deployment, the quality of the networks, the adoption by customers have all been nothing short of miraculous.”
Even before the pandemic hit, Mississippi lawmakers had already begun to set their public policy to encourage newcomers in the broadband market. In January 2019, then-Gov. Phil Bryant had signed the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act, which removed a 1942 regulation that prevented electric cooperatives from offering anything other than electricity to their members.