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Today is July 6, 2022

Bridging the digital divide

A Q/A with Sally Doty

By Steven Ward

Bridging the digital divide

Former Public Utility Staff Director Sally Doty of Brookhaven has a new job in state government — overseeing the distribution of federal money earmarked for broadband expansion in Mississippi. In the following interview, Doty talks about her new position, the challenges of getting high-speed internet to rural parts of the state, and why co-ops are the key to Mississippi’s future digital landscape.  

 

TIM: State lawmakers have set up the Broadband Expansion and Accessibility of Mississippi office and Gov. Tate Reeves has appointed you to run the office. Can you tell our readers about why the office was created and what the main goals are?

 

SD: The 2022 Legislature created a new office of Broadband Expansion and Accessibility of Mississippi — BEAM, because a tremendous amount of federal dollars designated for broadband infrastructure will be disbursed in Mississippi over the next few years. BEAM provides a sole point of contact and is responsible for making sure this once in a lifetime federal broadband money is used to reach unserved and underserved locations. We have too many needs in Mississippi to overbuild existing lines. 

 

TIM: Before this, you lead the state’s public utilities staff. In that job, you worked to help administer federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money to providers, including electric cooperatives, to bring broadband service to rural Mississippi. Can you tell readers about that job and experience and how that helps inform what you will be doing at your new post?

 

SD: In July of 2020, grant applications for CARES Act funding were due just a couple of days after I left my position in the State Senate and Gov. Reeves appointed me as director of the Public Utilities Staff. The Legislature had set aside $75 million in CARES Act money for a broadband infrastructure grant program that was primarily designated for electric cooperatives. My office awarded the funds and audited projects throughout the state. We saw an incredible effort by co-ops that resulted in over 5,000 miles of new fiber in the state over the next year.  Co-ops saw take rates that exceeded  their expectations and provided an opportunity for rural Mississippians to participate in the digital economy.   

 

TIM: What is the single biggest obstacle to getting broadband access to our rural communities?

 

SD: The single biggest obstacle to getting broadband to rural communities is the extremely high cost required to build infrastructure. While the federal government has designated money for unserved and undeserved areas, it will still be a stretch to reach all areas in Mississippi. The obstacle may now transfer to supply chain and workforce issues. I’m hearing that lead time for purchasing new fiber and supporting technologies can be over a year. Likewise, we have relied on out of state contract crews for fiber splicing and installation, and with money going to all states, competition for those crews will increase. Several of our community colleges will be offering fiber splicing training this fall to address these workforce needs.  And we need Mississippians who are trained to support this infrastructure  over the long haul.  

 

TIM: Like electric power decades ago, electric cooperatives seem to be uniquely qualified to help connect rural Mississippi to high-speed internet. Does that seem like an apt comparison?

 

SD: I do think this effort compares to the buildout of electricity to rural areas in the 1930’s. That buildout was a game changer for so many rural families, allowing them to take advantage of modern conveniences and upgrading their quality of life. Broadband touches so many areas of our lives; education, telehealth, and the ability to work remotely. With technology increasing to include uses we never dreamed of, broadband expansion will allow rural Mississippians to fully participate in the digital world in which we live.  

 

TIM: Is there anything residents of rural Mississippi and electric cooperative members can do to help ensure broadband connectivity takes place in their communities?

 

SD: Rural cooperative members should stay in contact with their local board members to let them know if they are unserved or underserved. BEAM will be undertaking a large mapping effort this summer, and will need cooperative members to respond to requests for information regarding their broadband service or lack thereof. We look forward to convening community meetings to discuss buildout opportunities and ways to increase digital literacy. 

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