Rural high-speed internet: White House, state lawmakers push to expand access

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Many rural areas of Mississippi still struggle with accessing high-speed internet, but a spotlight on the issue nationwide and here at home could push lawmakers to lead the way in providing faster internet service in areas that need it.

President Donald Trump

President Donald Trump signed two executive orders this week aimed at promoting the expansion of broadband internet into rural areas. The signings took place just after his speech Monday at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual convention in Nashville.

One order called on executive departments and agencies to “seek to reduce barriers to capital investment, remove obstacles to broadband services, and more efficiently employ Government resources.”

The other order requires the Secretary of the Interior to develop a plan within six months to increase its tower facilities and other infrastructure assets.

“Those towers are going to go up, and you’re going to have great, great broadband,” Trump said.

Top Mississippi government officials have also recently shown support for broadband access expansion.

Gov. Phil Bryant

Sen. Roger Wicker

Last week, Gov. Phil Bryant and Sen. Roger Wicker had statements in support of Connect Americans Now, a coalition founded by Microsoft, the National Rural Education Association, the Mid-Atlantic Broadcasting Communities Corporation and others groups.

Connect Americans Now aims for the Federal Communications Commission and other policymakers to reserve bandwidth below the 700 MHz frequency range, also known as “TV white spaces”, for internet service providers to deliver broadband. The groups hopes to establish high-speed internet service for 23.4 million Americans in rural areas by 2022.

“Connecting more Mississippians to high-speed internet is essential to our state’s economic future,” Sen. Wicker said in a statement.

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville

Meanwhile, House Bill 122, authored by Rep. John W. Hines, Sr., D-Greenville, could make it a state goal to make sure all Mississippi residents and businesses have access to broadband at specific download and upload speeds no later than 2026.

The bill would require the Mississippi Department of Information Technology Services to be the network backbone and central server to satellite networks and require local school districts to serve as the local hub for the impoverished areas, among other things.

Mississippi Public Service Commission chairman Brandon Presley called Mississippi’s rural broadband access issue an “infrastructure crisis”. He said people in rural areas of the state demand the same level of service as people living in urban areas as the need for high speed internet service grows.

“It’s definitely a quality-of-life issue, because you’ve got families whose children cannot do research online,” Presley said Monday. “You’ve got businesses that cannot function because of a lack of service.”

He said rural areas of the state lack the proper infrastructure like fiber optic cables to support high speed internet, especially in the commission’s Northern District which he represents. He likens the current state of rural broadband access in the nation to the development of electricity infrastructure.

PSC

Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley

“Electricity didn’t get down every road because you didn’t have poles and wires,” Presley said Monday. “The same principles apply here.”

He said the state still has a long way to go before its broadband access needs are met. For instance, larger internet service providers such as AT&T should be the ones either to provide this access or allow other providers, such as electric cooperatives, to come in and take care of the job, he said.

“We’ve got to recognize that internet service is a utility,” Presley said. “There is, in my mind, no difference in internet service than electricity, and we guarantee that electricity can be available within a geographic area. We ought to be doing the same thing for internet service. I am for any approach that moves the ball down the court.”