Efforts to provide broadband service to the rural areas of Mississippi received a big boost through a matching grant program passed the Legislature last week.

This was largely a response to the coronavirus pandemic that in March, forced the closure of schools and many businesses.

Legislators passed a bill last year that allowed electrical power associations to provide high speed broadband service to the rural areas, if they choose to do so.

But start-up costs are expensive. One power association estimates it will cost $22,500 to $35,000 per mile to install fiber cable in the ground.

The grant program originated in SB 3046. Rep. Scott Bounds of Philadelphia, who chairs the House Public Utilities committee, said the bill was rewritten in the House. That version passed the House and Senate and awaits Gov. Tate Reeves signature.

It makes $65 million in CARES (The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) money available in the Mississippi Electric Cooperative Broadband Grant Program. Participating power associations will match that $65 million which would put $130 million to work across the state, installing fiber cables and establishing broadband internet service.

“To me, broadband has become a necessity, almost like electricity,” said Bounds. “In order for households to operate, you have to have good broadband service.”

The coronavirus pandemic has put the spotlight on distance learning. There were virtual classrooms taught during the time schools were closed last spring. But many students living in the rural areas could not participate because of a lack of internet service.

Bounds noted broadband is also needed in homes for work, business meetings and tele-health, among other things.

Bounds said there are 18 electric power associations in the process of applying for the grant money. Each will be able to apply for $6 million grant. When they match the $6 million dollar-per-dollar, each will have $12 million to dedicate to installing the fiber cable.

If there is any money left over after the initial round, the associations can come back and apply for more.

“There has never been a more sweeping broadband deployment at any time,” Bounds said. “Obviously, it won’t address all of our needs but it will go a long way.”

The grant dollars do bring special requirements,

“There is a provision that some co-ops might be a little apprehensive about it,” Bounds said.  “The focus will be fiber deployment, and the bill requires a minimum of 100 megs of speed, up and down the line. This is significant. The FCC minimum is 25 megs down and three up. But 100 megs is more than sufficient for any household to have.”

Bounds explained the reasoning.

“Why build a two-lane highway when we are going to need six lanes in the future,” Bounds said. “The demand for the speed is going to increase, You have to have the infrastructure to handle it and right now, fiber is the way to go.”

One local educator said broadband service can’t come quick enough for his students and staff who live in the rural areas.

“This is super important because the majority of our students and staff don’t have access to quality Internet service,” said Cody Killen, principal at Neshoba Central Middle School.

“They may have some sort of Internet but the quality is lacking as far as having the capacity to run online programs.

“You may be able to offer students hot spots. But then the hot spots need something to connect to. We have some students and staff who don’t have cell service where they live.”