Kadiyah Nunn was one of several employees sent to work from home by her job’s management in 2019 when COVID-19 hit Mississippi.
Dependent on her satellite service for an internet connection at her home in rural Sharon in Madison County, Nunn experienced slow internet and static calls to customers, resulting in repeated questions and statements.
After being given two weeks without pay by her employer to look for another internet service, Nunn had no luck. She was let go.
Nunn went eight months without a job and almost had her car repossessed over something she said she “had no absolute control over.”
“It was the most horrific day of my life to lose a good job,” Nunn told Mississippi Today, “not because I did anything wrong – or wasn’t completing my tasks – but because of the internet.”
Two years ago, the Madison County Board of Supervisors approved funding for over 370 miles of high speed internet to cover more than 4,000 homes in the rural northeast areas of Madison County in District 5 – carried out in collaboration with Comcast.
These areas include Camden, Sharon, Pine Grove and some parts of Canton.
As of Aug. 17, zero areas have been covered within this newly estimated $17 million project, said District 5 Supervisor Paul Griffin, president of the Madison County Board of Supervisors.
The original $22 million cost was lowered a month ago after Comcast conducted a walkthrough of where fiber would be installed.
Federal officials have been pouring billions of dollars into the expansion of high-speed internet in Mississippi, yet the tedious process of selecting providers and distributing funds has resulted in a slow rollout.
After receiving no actions and few answers from county officials, residents in the rural northeast portions of Madison County are left wondering when broadband will come to their area.
Griffin said “red tape” – actions the government requires to perform services – have delayed the project’s progress.
“It is not Madison County. It’s been the federal government getting the money down to the local government,” Griffin told Mississippi Today. “The district is waiting on the funds that have gone through the government down to the state, to move from the state down to internet providers.”
Madison County, which received over $20 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, set aside $10 million for the project but now is contributing half of that. The county applied for a Capital Project Fund aid match through the Broadband Expansion and Accessibility of Mississippi office.
If the county receives the grant, Comcast will also contribute funds up to $7 million to cover the remaining balance, the Board of Supervisors said.
With only partial funds in hand, the project remains at a standstill.
In Madison County, a little over a fifth of the locations in the county are eligible for funding, according to the Mississippi’s broadband office. Of those locations, 73% are unserved areas.
And of the areas unserved, at least half are in the rural northern areas that Griffin said are to be prioritized.
As this delay continues, many of Madison County’s schoolchildren and adults, particularly in the least wealthy parts of the county, can’t access high-speed internet. Griffin’s advice is to just keep holding on.
“There was no future to get the internet at all until two years ago when federal funding started coming down,” Griffin told Mississippi Today. “We’ve held on that long. Hopefully we can hold on for another year.”
In Sharon, nearly all – over 94% – of locations are considered unserved and underserved, according to data collected in 2022.
When it was announced broadband high-speed internet was coming to Nunn’s area, she said she believed the community was progressing and the Board of Supervisors cared about its citizens. But with the prolonged wait, the mother of three says it’s becoming difficult to raise her family in the area she loves and grew up in.
“This is my livelihood. This is how I provide for my family,” Nunn said. “The world is technology now. You need the internet to basically do anything.”
In rural areas like Nunn’s without cable, fiber, or DSL internet access, the commonly served satellite internet providers are Viasat and HughesNet. Satellite internet is the only thing she’s able to get, but these services are not recommended for those who work from home and need high-speed connection.
The 24-year-old said she has satellite internet service with Viasat, but the 100 GB plan package she needs runs $275.45 per month, which is higher than the average cost of satellite service ($100). Nunn said the 100 GB wouldn’t even last her two days before it’s used up and begins to run slow.
“This is becoming too much. People in the Canton area mention to me that I can get Xfinity Internet that’s priced at $10 or $13 per month because I have low income and children,” Nunn continued. “I go to check. But the providers, of course, say that they don’t operate in my area.”
Mapping remains spotty during the process of expanding broadband for residents, especially those in rural communities.
Sally Doty, director of the Broadband Expansion and Accessibility of Mississippi office, said her office is working to develop a new map to be released within the next month or two that will provide an accurate representation of broadband availability across the state.
This map will be funded by the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program through Doty’s office out of the $1.2 billion Mississippi will receive to serve approximately 300,000 unserved and 200,000 underserved locations across the state.
Doty said this new map will help the office accurately determine where funding should be allocated and what areas still need to be addressed. It will also help residents determine what services are available to them.
“We are really kind of turning to a new way of keeping up with who has what service in some areas,” Doty continued. “As we do with all of the grants from our office and any grant that we give out, we are going to know the exact location and the addresses where (the awardee) is going to provide service.”
The broadband deployment program will begin its application process after money from the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund has been dispersed.
A few hours before the application for those funds closed Aug. 17, there were 103 applications and over 100 applications in progress. Of the $356.4 million that providers are asking from Doty’s office, only $162 million will be dispersed.
As more funding is distributed, Doty said the number of unserved and underserved residents will continue to shift.
“We have 268,000 unserved, but I’m not quite sure how many we will serve with this (coronavirus fund) … We hope about 35,000 or more. Then, we’re down to 233,000 unserved, so that gives us more for the underserved,” Doty told Mississippi Today. “It’s a moving target all the time.”
Cynthia Johnson, a Sharon native for over 60 years, saw firsthand the importance of access to high-speed internet for children in rural areas before and after the pandemic.
Johnson has two children, ages 15 and 16, who are required to do virtual learning and submit assignments online. But with no access to high-speed internet at home, the children have missed deadlines to turn homework in by 11:59 p.m.
Johnson said she had to call the school several times to explain their situation and plead for understanding to be granted to her children.
She said she hoped to never experience hurdles like this again and to provide her children with the same educational opportunities as the rest of the county. But because the situation has persisted for so long, she is starting to feel forgotten.
“Everything is prospering and growing around us, except for our area,” Johnson told Mississippi Today. “It makes you feel like you’re in a foreign country.”
People in the community like Johnson also see benefits of working from home, considering the lack of opening positions in the area.
“There are no jobs in Sharon. The closest thing to me would be Canton, but with gas prices, you can’t get very far” Johnson said. “If you have to go 30 miles to at least get a minimum wage, then that’s not benefiting anyone.”
According to Census Bureau data, the average commute time to work in Sharon was 52.5 minutes compared to the state’s average commute time of 25.2 minutes.
Johnson said she doesn’t know how people are supposed to manage with so little resources that help the community to grow economically and socially.
“We have always got the short end of everything out here.” Johnson stated.
MediaJustice, a national grassroots movement aimed at improving communication rights, access, and power for diverse and marginalized communities, seeks to bridge the digital divide – the gap between who benefits from reliable internet connections and who doesn’t.
In early August, the California-based organization submitted a report to Mississippi’s broadband office integrating the stories and recommendations of residents and community leaders in Utica, pushing for internet access and a visit from officials.
“How can (officials) have any sense of what kind of solutions a community wants, if they haven’t even come and told the community about what kind of solutions are possible?” Brandon Forester, the national organizer for internet rights at MediaJustice, told Mississippi Today.
Forester works to help communities see that they can have a role, have agency and make decisions about the technology in their community. Forester said he relied on the power of storytelling to detail the barriers and solutions to broadband access as identified by the experiences of residents of Utica.
“The report was to say these people exist. They’re 45 minutes down the road from the Capitol. These people are completely disconnected,” Forester continued. “And the state doesn’t even realize it.”
Utica, a rural town in Hinds County of around 600 residents, found itself grappling with similar problems as those in rural Sharon: lack of internet access and high internet rates.
Forester said some residents reported not receiving the service they paid for and others required different levels of service needs. Forester said ultimately, a common theme was that the internet was too expensive.
“Part of that is because companies essentially are monopolies. AT&T and HughesNet are not competing for the same customers, so providers are able to put whatever pricing they want on these folks,” Forester said, referring to studies conducted by the Los Angeles Times and The Markup.
In rural communities, assistance can be slow due to multiple factors, but one reason is that internet providers need incentives.
Forester said for large, publicly traded corporations, their incentives may be to maximize profits for shareholders. For Electric Co-Ops – private, nonprofit companies delivering electricity to customers –, their goal may be to connect as many people as possible.
Forester said he thinks about people’s abilities to have telehealth savings, access to education and entertainment, if only rural communities had high-speed internet.
“(MediaJustice) is trying to help people figure out how to organize their resources because it may not be that the right internet solution for one area is the same as it is for another neighborhood,” Forester explained. “It’s not about us saying this is the best thing for someone, but it’s about a community being able to make choices regarding how technology shows up for them.”