OXFORD — During a discussion Wednesday about recent advancements in technology and infinite opportunities for more growth came a sobering reminder.

The Federal Communications Commission reported in 2016 that 34 percent of Mississippi residents had no option for fixed, high speed broadband. In rural parts of the state, the percentage jumped to about 60 percent of residents without access.

“That’s the highest percentage of any state in the country,” said Nicholas Degani, senior counsel for the Federal Communications Commission.

Leaders from across the nation gathered for the second University of Mississippi Technology Summit to discuss challenges the state faces and prospects for growth within the technology industry.

The summit was spearheaded by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., hosted by University of Mississippi Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter and moderated by James Barksdale, president of Barksdale Management Corp.

Keynote speaker James Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics and two other multi-billion dollar software companies, began the summit by telling the story of those companies’ inceptions. All were conceived long before the internet as we know it today existed.  

“It was such a big deal that I was doing something so crazy as to put money into the internet. Everyone knew you couldn’t make money on the internet. It was a madhouse in those days,” Clark said about Netscape, a company he founded in 1993, whose first product was the web browser.

Barksdale was president and CEO of Netscape Communications Corporation from January 1995 until the company merged with AOL in March 1999. 

The prospect of making a successful commercial entity doing anything related to the internet was unheard of, Clark added.

“No one believed it could happen,” he said.

Clark and other panelists discussed how Mississippians can ready themselves for technological advancements, and on the flip side, how the lack of basic internet access in some parts of the state limits people’s access to health care, education and job opportunities.

“If you don’t have broadband access today that creates a serious opportunity gap,” said Ryan Harkins, director of state affairs and public policy for Microsoft.

The challenge of bringing broadband to rural Mississippi primarily has been economic. Fewer people to pay for the service means higher prices, though Degani noted that technological advancements will help bring down those costs.

Lawmakers hesitating to bring tech opportunities to rural areas for fear of eliminating jobs also has added to the lag.

“From a state legislative standpoint, a lot of times there’s tension associated with embracing technology that can improve outcome and save costs because personnel is a huge component of how your taxpayer dollars are used. Legislators are very cautious to adopt technologies if they think it’s going to result in job losses,” said Rebekah Staples, public policy adviser for the office of Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.

To push the tech industry forward, Staples recommended, leaders should articulate to law and policy makers the benefits of trading off personnel for technological advancements.

Other panelists mentioned that although personnel cuts might be made upfront, job growth would be the ultimate result of furthering technology in the state. 

“We understand that there’s going to be likely job losses in the traditional sense, but with all of the innovation and emerging technology that we’re seeing today, it’s going to create new jobs. Whether it’s maintaining the network or operating machines and robots in factories or learning how to update the algorithms that are powering the machine learning,” said Olivia Trusty, a professional staff member of the U.S. Commerce Committee.

Jim Barksdale is a member of Mississippi Today’s board of directors and a financial donor to Mississippi Today.

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Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.