Supervisors allocate $10 million of ARPA funds to broadband

The Madison County Board of Supervisors approved $10 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to bring broadband to parts of the county that previously lacked it — something board chairman Paul Griffin, said to be a top priority this year.

The rural parts of the county, especially the northeast part, have not been able to have broadband due to the high cost of these projects in rural areas. Building to bring broadband to residents involves the use of fiber, which is costly mainly due to high labor costs. In the case of Northwestern Madison County, it is not densely populated and the distance between homes and the distance to fiber routes drive up costs. Mississippi Public Service Central District Commissioner Brent Bailey said the challenge is trying to provide fast, high-quality and reliable service in a very rural area.

“We’re talking about sparsely populated areas, and you can usually hear the discussion about potential customers per line mile or other population density benchmarks,” Bailey said. “These providers need to recoup those costs in a timeframe that fits their economics and financial models to ensure there’s a certain level of profitability to be achieved from that.”

Due to the high cost of internet service in rural areas, Bailey said broadband and internet in the state of Mississippi are generally considered a luxury. It is not compared to services such as electricity, water, waste disposal, natural gas or landlines, which are considered essential and critical services.

Another factor that plays into the difficulty of getting broadband in rural areas is that in 2012 telecommunications was almost completely deregulated by Bill 825.

“The legislator considered that due to the evolution of technology and the large number of suppliers, the market should be deregulated and open and allow free markets to best determine where these investments remain for technologies at short and long term. term and the variations that come with it,” Bailey said.

Other utilities, such as electricity, operate in designated certificate areas, which means that no other company can supply electricity where Entergy serves. Before 2012, this was also the case for telecommunications companies. When regulation disappeared, the goal was to create options and new areas to serve

“The idea was to reduce those barriers in newly certified areas, and people will go out into the countryside and start laying fiber or providing services that may have only been provided to high-density urban areas. density,” Bailey said. “Honestly, we probably didn’t see this to the extent we anticipated.”

Instead of a rush of providers serving the county, urban areas in various counties will have multiple fiber optic lines crossing an individual’s front yard due to the removal of regulations.

“You can have AT&T, Comcast and C-Spire side by side and therefore you have multiple options and can take advantage of that,” Bailey said. “In rural areas you don’t have that because the high cost it takes to run new infrastructure in those areas and the risk of it being overbuilt by someone else (is so high). They further dilute your potential customer base and your subscription rate in these areas is unknown. You simply don’t know without a very thorough market analysis. It costs money. There are just a lot of factors.

Currently, some places without broadband still have copper line options or satellite internet solutions, and many areas have decent wireless phone service that people use as their primary internet connection. However, this presents challenges, especially in the case of the virtual school mentioned by Griffin.

“There are kids who don’t have internet service in the northeast part of the county,” Griffin said. “The way the virus is – schools are likely to go virtual at any time. That’s just one of the reasons broadband matters.

Bailey said Madison County kids had internet access at school, but when schools went online, problems arose.

“When students leave the school compound, as we have seen during the pandemic, and classes try to be held online with video and tests and they do not have access to it, they are either resign to sitting in the school parking lot, go to a fast food joint, or try to find other earners who have a reliable connection,” Bailey said. “A lot of times it’s a wireless connection, and you need to have a device that can do that. Then they end up with, if they have a proper cellular service signal, their smartphone becomes a point hot, and they just chew through monthly data limits and end up with huge cell phone bills.

Now that the county has approved the cash for broadband, companies have the opportunity to respond with a plan and estimate to build it to see if it can be developed to be economically feasible.

“C-Spire is currently reviewing Madison County’s RFP for broadband connectivity in the northeast portion of the county,” said Vice President of Corporate Communications and Marketing Operations at C-Spire. Speyer, Jim Richmond. “Proposal submissions are due back to the county in early March.”

In addition to broadband, the council voted ARPA funds to distribute $2.5 million to water and sewer projects, $2.5 million to watershed projects, and $5 million to Bozeman Road. . A request is also being submitted to the Legislative Assembly to match these funds to help projects go further.

Bailey said undertaking the feat of broadband in rural areas is a step towards technological access, economic development, social justice and equitable resources.

“There are many different adjectives that can be described for what Madison County is trying to do in this part of the world to provide equal access to these students to encourage economic development, even residential development and just improve the overall quality of life for people in this region,” Bailey said. “But it will take significant investment to get there.”

Bailey said serving these areas is unlikely to be achieved without significant subsidy from local, state and federal resources. These resources will be needed to incentivize and incentivize ISPs to travel to “at-risk” parts of the state, deploy infrastructure, commit to overseeing it, and providing customer service.

“It’s just not as simple as throwing the system away and saying ‘Here it is,'” Bailey said. “You have to maintain that connectivity with the global web. You need to have a redundant connection to ensure that if something happens in a game, you keep that note connected. Hats off to [supervisors].”

Bailey said it was an innovative move from the local level to leverage local dollars and hopefully state and federal dollars to deliver quality internet, which creates a digital equity across the county.

“I know this is one of Paul Griffin’s priorities as supervisor and chairman of the board,” Bailey said. “I believe there are other counties around the state watching to see what happens and to see what it looks like if there are any takers. Is the subsidy incentive sufficient? I do not know.

I live in this part of the world, in the district of Paul Griffin, northeast of Madison County. I know the challenges when it comes to internet service options and how people are trying to do that and solve the conundrum and provide solutions. This will take time and investment. »

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