The National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s BroadbandUSA team convened a productive workshop in Jackson, Miss., last week to explore ways to close the digital divide in a state that continues to expand broadband connectivity and adoption.
The event was the second in a series of regional workshops that NTIA is hosting across the country as part of its new BroadbandUSA program, which is helping communities improve local broadband capacity and utilization.
The new initiative – highlighted by President Obama last month – builds on lessons learned and best practices from NTIA’s successful broadband grant programs, which invested more than $4 billion in network infrastructure, public computer centers, digital literacy training and broadband mapping. BroadbandUSA provides resources – including technical assistance, toolkits and guides – to help communities assess local broadband needs, engage stakeholders, explore business models, evaluate financing options and attract private-sector investment.
The Mississippi workshop - presented in cooperation with the non-profit Connect MS and the Mississippi Economic Development Council – drew panelists and attendees from across the Gulf Region. But much of the focus was on Mississippi, which in 2009 created a statewide taskforce to coordinate efforts on broadband policy.
In 2010, the state received NTIA funding to map broadband availability and establish a non-profit public-private partnership, the Mississippi Broadband Connect Coalition, to develop a plan to close the state’s broadband gaps. Connect MS is now continuing that work.
According to the National Broadband Map, as of the end of 2013, only 68 percent of Mississippi residents had access to download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second – the Federal Communications Commission’s new benchmark for broadband – compared with nearly 86 percent of Americans overall. At the same time, NTIA’s most recent Digital Nation report found that just 58 percent of Mississippi households subscribed to broadband as of late 2012, versus 75 percent nationally.
These lags reflect broader demographics in a rural state with an average of 63.2 people for every square mile (compared with a national average of 87.4) and nearly 22.7 percent of residents living below the poverty line (compared with 15.4 percent of Americans overall)
Still – as the Jackson workshop made clear – Mississippi has made tremendous progress.
Contact Network, a regional Internet provider doing business as InLine, used more than $30 million in NTIA funding to take its high-speed network in Mississippi from just 43 miles of fiber connecting 18 community anchor institutions, to more than 1,000 miles of fiber connecting 327 schools, public safety facilities and other anchors. And InLine President Martin Costa noted that the company’s expansion has encouraged local competitors to upgrade their own networks.
This enhanced capacity fuels new development, economic growth and jobs. It also opens all sorts of new opportunities in healthcare, education and other realms.
Michael Osborne, Administrator for Telehealth Services at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, said broadband enables the center to serve an aging rural population with growing medical needs even though many people live far from healthcare specialists. The university’s telehealth program has 165 locations across the state that remotely connect patients with 35 medical specialties at the Jackson campus.
And the Clinton Public School District has pioneered the state’s first one-to-one computing program for the district’s 5,000 students. The school system assigns an iPad to every student in kindergarten through fourth grade and a MacBook starting in fifth grade. Beginning in sixth grade, kids can take the laptops home.
Connected by robust bandwidth, the devices make it possible for many students to use videoconferencing services and other multimedia applications at one time. That lets sixth graders communicate with archeologists in Afghanistan, allows fourth graders to talk with New York City fire chiefs on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, and connects high school genetics classes with physicians at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and other hospitals.
Still, there is more to be done, particularly on the Internet adoption front, said Roberto Gallardo, who oversees the Intelligent Community Institute at the Mississippi State University Extension Service, which helps rural communities prosper in the digital age. Too many rural Mississippi residents, Gallardo noted, don’t see the value of broadband or understand how it is relevant to their lives.
“I ask rural communities: Are you in? Or are you going to miss this train?” he said. “I tell them: Asking why do I need this is like asking why do I need electricity when I already use candles?”
So the work continues – in Mississippi and across the country – as local communities tackle the challenge of ensuring that all residents have access to advanced telecommunications networks and the skills and resources to take advantage of them. And NTIA will be supporting these efforts.