Groups work to bring Internet to rural areas

By Lynn Lofton/Mississippi Business Journal

JACKSON — Internet connectivity is spreading through rural Mississippi but there is still work to be done. Internet access needs can vary widely and adoption of this connectivity still remains a hurdle, say groups working on these challenges.

The governor’s office and the Mississippi Broadband Connect Coalition could not give a figure for the percentage of the state still without broadband access. Both say there are very few places that do not have some sort of access.

“Nearly the entire state has some form of access to the Internet due to the cellular telephone provider footprints,” Gov. Phil Bryant’s office said. “However, many people and businesses cannot utilize a high-speed connection because the wire line infrastructure to provide services has not been installed in their area. Other available non-broadband Internet access routes, like dial-up telephone service, can be slow, limited and restrictive.”

Jason Dean, managing director of Mississippi Broadband Connect Coalition, said his organization’s focus is on broadband availability and an adoption program.

“There’s a lot of coverage if you take in cable and cellphones, but we’re trying to get more people to use it,” he said. “Education, health care, government services and workforce training have to create demand drivers.”

According to a Mississippi State University study, 70 percent of state residents are adopters — meaning they use broadband Internet.

“Others can’t afford the equipment and the service or don’t trust it or don’t understand the value of its usefulness — that is of most concern to me,” Dean said. “It isn’t just the Delta; it’s all over the state. Age and education are other factors.”

Dean said that’s changing as wireless becomes more prevalent. There are high adoption rates where a higher per capita income and education exist.

Internet access is increasingly becoming as critical to economic development as other infrastructure factors such as energy and transportation.

Bryant understands the relationship between robust infrastructure and the state’s ability to attract and retain economic investment.

“Mississippi is committed to developing a long-term strategy to provide broadband access throughout the state,” he said. “Broadband Internet access is becoming increasingly critical to families, businesses and institutions, and increasing our broadband capabilities will yield new and varied opportunities.”

Enhancing broadband infrastructure is also part of Bryant’s GoCoast 2020 initiative, a Gulf Coast recovery effort following the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“To effectively recruit new industries, retain and expand existing ones, and nurture and attract entrepreneurial ventures to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a community must be armed with innovative technology infrastructure,” he said. “For many businesses, broadband Internet is as vital to its success as other infrastructure assets such as roads, rail and ports.”

The Mississippi Broadband Task Force, led by the governor’s office and made up of representatives from various state agencies, was established in 2009. The group reached out to providers supplying broadband service in the state, after which the team worked collaboratively with the providers to standardize the information compiled and created a geographic representation of their coverage.

Joseph D. Songy works with the governor’s Broadband for Mississippi office and says this representation can be viewed on the organization’s interactive map at www.msbb.broadmap.com. The web application was created to help find high-speed Internet services for homes and businesses alike.

The data represented on the map is derived from efforts for an October 2010 delivery to the National Telecommunications Information Administration.

“Ongoing efforts to collect provider updates and validate the data will continue through 2014 with bi-annual updated results in April and October,” Songy said.

The governor’s office is working closely with other stakeholders to develop policies that will help expedite the development of broadband access in the state.

Proposals include adopting a Dig Once policy to allow broadband providers to install infrastructure simultaneously with highway construction and repair projects. This policy will create uniformity in costs and regulations that govern utility poles and what types of utility infrastructure may be attached to them and update existing utility regulations to allow fiber optic cable used in broadband systems to be installed on bridges.

Looking to the future, Bryant said, “Reliable access to a high-speed Internet connection is becoming an increasingly vital part of society.

“As Mississippi builds out its broadband infrastructure, new opportunities will emerge, whether in a student’s ability to gather information for a school project, a business’ ability to connect with customers, or a physician’s ability to coordinate care for a patient in a remote location through advances in telemedicine.”

Dean said telemedicine is a way for broadband access to make a big impact on rural Mississippians.

“We’re working on that now and trying to drive demand for it,” he said. “With access to the Internet, a patient can connect to a doctor, and patients in rural areas will see how the internet can affect their daily lives.”

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Information from: Mississippi Business Journal, http://www.msbusiness.com