May 28, 2020 11:16:41 AM
In any major crisis, the weaknesses of a nation's infrastructure are exposed in ways that cannot be ignored. That's certainly the case with COVID-19, which has exposed troubling deficiencies in many areas.
Among those deficiencies is the lack of broadband internet access in many communities throughout our nation and, in particular, in Mississippi, which ranks 42nd in the nation in broadband access.
That's hardly a secret. In Mississippi, we've known for years our state is seriously lacking in this area. What's different now, is that we are beginning to understand the serious implications of that deficit. When Gov. Tate Reeves ordered the state's schools to be closed, the shift to online teaching exposed a serious problem. Forty-percent of the state has no broadband access and a quarter-million residents in the state have no internet access of any kind. When schools shifted to online classes, thousands of children faced the prospects of being left behind.
With the continuing uncertainty about when schools will reopen, there's a real possibility that we may have to continue to rely on online classes.
It is an issue that commands immediate attention and we are pleased to see some real momentum growing for addressing this long-ignored need.
Today in Washington, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D, South Carolina) and Rep. Fred Upton (R, Michigan) will hold a conference call to discuss H.R. 7022, aka, The Rural Broadband Acceleration Act, a bi-partisan bill designed to fund "shovel-ready" broadband expansion projects throughout the nation.
The conference call will also include Brandon Presely, Mississippi's greatest champion for broadband access expansion, in his role as president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.
Presley will undoubtedly provide great insight on this subject. For several years, he's fought to expand broadband in the state, pushing legislation through the Mississippi Legislature a year ago that would permit utility co-ops in the state to provide broadband access to areas that private internet providers considered not cost-efficient. Since then, several co-ops have already started the process of providing broadband service. Locally 4-County Electric Power Association is considering the matter, albeit very tentatively.
We believe the time to strike is now. Before COVID-19, there was $20 billion in federal funds to help expand rural broadband access. In the wake of federal emergency funding to help fund recovery from COVID-19, billions more may soon be available.
As part of the CARES Act funding of a month ago, Mississippi has more than $800 million in recovery funds available to be dispersed. The Mississippi Department of Education has requested $300 million of that money to provide every Mississippi school child with a laptop or tablet computer.
Without high-speed internet access, those devices will be of little value.
Broadband access, like access to electricity 100 years ago, is no longer a luxury. It is an essential service.
It's time to recognize the urgency of this need and act without delay.
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