Broadband. File photo dated 15/01/14 of a broadband router and cable, as a a National Assembly Committee have suggested that subsidies to landowners in Wales should be conditional on them allowing mobile phone masts on their land. Issue date: Wednesday September 20, 2017. A new report from the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee calls on the Welsh Government to consider innovative ways to connect the last 4% of Wales without broadband access. See PA story POLITICS Broadband. Photo credit should read: Rui Vieira/PA Wire URN:32913043

Mississippi’s new broadband expansion agency is asking the public to help with data on internet speeds and availability across the state, for mapping that will be crucial to receiving federal funding for broadband infrastructure.

The federal government is pumping billions of dollars into expansion of internet service in rural areas nationwide. Inaccuracy of service availability mapping has been a long-running problem in determining unserved and underserved areas.

Over the next few months, the Mississippi Office of Broadband Expansion and Accessibility for Mississippi (BEAM) will be using data collected statewide to challenge inaccuracies on the current federal map. This map will be used starting in July to divvy funding among all states from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Any Mississippian lacking adequate internet service is asked to visit www.broadbandms.com. Those with no service at all can call or text “Internet” to 601-439-2535 to report locations with no service.

“Our office has been compiling data and working with a mapping consultant to prepare for the release of the FCC map in November,” said Sally Doty, director of BEAM. “We knew the initial map would not show a true picture of broadband service in Mississippi and our office is ready to engage in the challenge process so Mississippi will be fairly represented.”

While past data and mapping has been spotty, there have been estimates that 40% of Mississippi lacks internet access, and it has ranked near the bottom among states on access to service. The effort to extend it has been likened to providing electricity to rural Mississippi in the 1930s, and officials have said it should have similar life-changing impact.

Beam has been taking applications from internet providers and doling out $162 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act money earmarked for broadband expansion. The state is expected to receive from $500 million to $1.1 billion for expansion from the Infrastructure Act.

The state has received hundreds of millions of federal dollars for broadband expansion in recent years. It received $495 million from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and lawmakers earmarked another $75 million from the first round of pandemic relief the state received. Most of this money went to rural electric cooperatives who have extended internet service to thousands of homes so far.

Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley has been a staunch advocate for expanding broadband service to small towns and rural communities across Mississippi, and led the effort to change laws to allow electric co-ops to provide service.

“Whether it be telework, telemedicine, or online education, broadband accessibility will promote economic investment and enhance quality of life for countless rural Mississippians,” Presley said. “I will not rest until every last house at the end of every rural dirt road in Mississippi is connected.”

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.