As billions of dollars flow into the state of Mississippi from federal relief funds, some state leaders point to what’s happening in Prentiss County as a playbook.
Long before the start of the pandemic, the Prentiss County Electric Power Association (EPA) was working to increase broadband, or high-speed internet, access in their area. They lobbied the state Legislature to pass the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act in January of 2019, which gave them the statutory ability to provide broadband services. Construction took about a year, and in July 2020 they began installing fiber internet in customers’ homes.
“The speed at which they have gotten it done is just unheard of,” said Brandon Presley, northern district public service commissioner. “Every single home in Prentiss County can now get high-speed internet service. That would have truly been thought impossible just two years ago.”
Internet usage has become nearly ubiquitous, with 93% of American adults regularly using the internet in 2021 according to the Pew Research Center. But some populations still struggle to consistently access the resource; 72% of rural individuals have access to broadband, and 57% of low-income individuals have access. The pandemic has put into stark relief how essential internet access is to participation in society, leading to an increased investment by lawmakers to expand access.
In July 2020, electric cooperatives across the state received Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to increase broadband access for communities that had no other service available. For the Prentiss County EPA, that meant $5 million to serve what Ronny Rowland, general manager of the Prentiss County EPA, calls the “CARES area” — rural areas that larger companies wouldn’t service because of the high cost.
“We’re a not-for-profit, we borrowed the money to build out to them and the CARES money just came in to help us pay our loans back quicker,” Rowland said. “We were going to build out to them anyway because they’re our electric members and they own the co-op system.”
Currently, 56% of the co-op’s electric customers are signed up for the fiber internet, which jumps to 76% in some of the areas covered by the CARES Act funding.
Rowland started this project to help north Mississippi stay economically competitive and to improve the quality of life in the region, but said the pandemic put a particular focus on the need for high-speed internet access.
Jeff Palmer, the superintendent of Prentiss County Schools, said that the improved internet access through the EPA’s program helped students reach the virtual classroom and stay engaged with their education.
“We went from doing paper and pencil packets when it all started to having most of our students fully online by the start of school last year,” Palmer said.
Prentiss County Schools used the $600,000 in education-targeted CARES broadband funds they received to help students who were not on the EPA’s fiber internet. They created hotspot school busses that were strategically parked around the county and expanded the wifi capacity at the schools so people could access it from the parking lot.
Of the $50 million that was earmarked for schools, 79% was spent on education broadband projects, while 21% went unspent and was returned to the state unemployment fund. The Mississippi Department of Education said that the nearly $40 million was spent primarily on hotspots, network infrastructure, and laying fiber optic cable, with some larger projects to build cell towers.
Six school districts rejected the funding: Amite County Public School District, Midtown Public Charter School, the Mississippi School for the Blind and Deaf, Smith County School District, Water Valley School District, and Winona Montgomery Consolidated School District. Of those, two that Mississippi Today spoke with cited issues with the quick funding deadlines and restrictions on what could be purchased.
“A hotspot won’t do you any good if you don’t have cell service,” said Nick Hillman, Superintendent of the Smith County School District.
Presley said he was not aware of any co-ops that had not met the spending deadline, which was similar for both programs.
“This is a wonderful playbook for the hundreds of millions of dollars that are coming down now in terms of both the infrastructure bill and the American Rescue Plan,” said Presley. “This program showed that those dollars can be spent effectively and have a great impact.”