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Today is October 30, 2020

COVID-19 brought unexpected opportunity in broadband expansion

By Delbert Hosemann

COVID-19 brought unexpected opportunity in broadband expansion

Before the 2020 Legislative Session convened in January, our office compiled a list of items we planned to tackle from increasing early education opportunities to reforming corrections to better training our workforce.

Then, COVID-19 descended on Mississippi. Legislators’ and state leaders’ focus immediately shifted to responding to the crisis, both from a public health standpoint and in bracing for the economic consequences of the pandemic. The way we interact with one another as citizens in our schools, businesses and healthcare facilities also changed.

With many unknowns about how to contain the spread of the virus, and its impact on those who contract it, we were no longer able to be in close quarters to carry out our daily life activities. Our schools ended classroom teaching and moved to distance learning. Many of our businesses temporarily closed or continued with work-from-home orders. Routine or preventive healthcare ceased and telehealth stepped in its place.

In adjusting to this new normal, COVID shined a bright light on a significant obstacle standing in the way of a smooth transition: the lack of reliable, high-speed internet access in many areas of Mississippi. However, through the partnership of legislative leaders like Senator Joel Carter and Representative Scott Bounds, the electric cooperatives, Public Service Commission, and other telecommunications companies, we turned this challenge into an unexpected opportunity.

Of the discretionary Coronavirus Relief Funds provided from the federal government, state legislators set aside $75 million for the infrastructure necessary to increase broadband availability in unserved or underserved areas. As a dollar-for-dollar match program, this represents an $150 million investment in our state. Nineteen projects, including 15 from electric cooperatives, have already received the green light and another round is expected to be awarded soon. By the end of 2021, this program will result in 4,700 additional miles of fiber providing access to almost 46,000 citizens.

In short, this is a game-changer for our state. First and foremost, it allows us to respond to the current crisis caused by COVID by creating opportunities to better learn, work and receive necessary services remotely. Second, it is an investment in the future of our economy and the future of our children. Like any other utility in our communities, access to the rest of the world through high-speed, reliable internet is an absolute necessity for every Mississippian.

As a body, the Senate is already exploring new ways to increase broadband availability. Unused fiber assets exist throughout Mississippi, ready to be tapped by providers, and new federal money is expected to come down the pike. With your help, we will be able to continue to build on the positive progress made this session, concerning internet access and the many other issues facing our state.

 

Delbert Hosemann is Mississippi’s lieutenant governor.

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