July 10, 2013 10:09:31 AM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley appeared in Lowndes County yesterday to announce an initiative to bring high-speed Internet to rural and metropolitan areas lacking access.
The development is what Presley referred to as the second component of the Zap the Gap campaign, which initially was spearheaded to bring cell phone service to outlying areas with little or no reception.
Part of bridging the gap is gathering documentation from people who still lack access, Presley said. To address that, the PSC now has a form people can fill out, and those interested can get access to it by mailing the PSC office and asking for a form, calling his office or filling a form out online if they have somewhere to access the Internet.
He cited a study that found Mississippi was ranked 46th in the country for residents above 60 who lack high-speed Internet and 25th in the country for number of providers overall. That produces an educational issue for school children who need access to work on projects and coursework as well as an economic development issue for business owners seeking more exposure, he said.
"If you've got two people out on a county road in Lowndes County who want Internet service, it's going to be hard as all get out to get a company to go out there, run a line and hook up two houses. But, having Internet service today at home is just as important as when we started running land line phones out years ago and said everybody in America would have a chance to get a land line phone," Presley said. "If you can take a small diner in a rural town, if they can put up a Facebook page and they can tell what their menu is every day and they can increase their customers, that's economic development."
Presley said the expanded program exists in part to serve small areas within communities where service is scarce and there is no incentive for large-scale, for-profit service providers to install service for so few people. Also, though, there are still areas statewide within cities that lack access and need attention, he said.
"We were (in DeSoto County, the most populated in the Northern District) at the first of the year and DeSoto County supervisors had documented by calls to their office and a program over 10,000 residents in DeSoto County that lack high-speed Internet service, so we know it's an issue," Presley said. "Once we aggregate all this data together and we know where the problem areas are, we're going to forward that up to the Federal Communications Commission."
The need to complete as much of this goal as possible in a short amount of time is great because federal money Mississippi receives each year to bring cell phone coverage to rural areas is decreasing each year by about 20 percent.
"That fund is transforming, and this year we're not going to get as much as we got last year, and that trend is going to continue. We have got to leverage and we have got to milk every drop of federal funding we can get to help bring these services out to our people in Mississippi," he said. "Mississippians as a whole contribute through their phone bills about $60 million a year to the Connect America fund. We get back designated to providers in our state about $280 million a year. As that fund continues to go down, we're going to have to make sure every penny spent where it benefits the public."
Documentation is key in receiving funding and ensuring as many people as possible receive service so they can remain connected, he said.
"These are services we know the people want. There is not a day that a call doesn't come to my office from somebody wanting to get this service. We hope this is going to be an avenue to help these people tell us where the problems are," he said. "It's an effort to be try to be a conduit between local communities and the federal government, and we're glad to take that role on."
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.