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Broadband expansion is coming to rural areas

Rural internet access got a boost when the Mississippi Legislature voted last week on two bills to allocate nearly a fourth of their Coronavirus Relief Fund at an amount of $275 million toward Rural Broadband expansion and K-12 distance learning.

Mississippi received 1.25 billion dollars from the federal government in unallocated funds to aid the state with any health or economic needs caused by the pandemic. Senator Joel Carter authored the “COVID-19 Connectivity act” or Senate Bill 3046, which establishes a grant program to expand internet services to underserved or unserved areas.

The funds for the 26 electric cooperatives in Mississippi totals $65 million with every dollar spent by the co-ops they will receive a federal dollar. For other service providers the bill provides $10 million. Lieutenant Governor Delbert Hossman praised the bill in a press release from the Mississippi Legislature.

“This legislation brings connectivity to the world for our children, educators, and parents and is a giant leap forward for our State’s future,” Hosemann said.

House Bill 1788, creates the  “Mississippi Pandemic Response Broadband Availability Grant Program,” and allocates $50 Million to the Mississippi Department of Education for grants to K-12 schools in areas without internet connectivity.

In addition to House Bill 1788, Senate Bill 3044 will provide $150 million to K-12 education to provide Students with laptops and to enhance distance learning in Mississippi. The bill was written by Senator Dennis DeBar and will also allocate three hundred thousand dollars to upgrade the data collection system of the MDE. It will also provide $129,700,000 to public school districts based on daily membership, and $20 Million for the MDE to give to school districts based on need.

Hosemann compared the passage of such legislation to the creation of electric cooperatives in Mississippi, which brought electricity to rural areas as in 1935 only 1% of the rural population had electricity.

The bill will hopefully help schools prepare for the possibility of distance learning in the fall Hosemann said as COVID-19 may prevent in person education.

“It will impact thousands of Mississippians who currently do not have access to broadband, a major hindrance for teaching, learning, and telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hosemann said. “We are grateful to all of the individuals and entities who banded together to get these bills passed including Senator DeBar, Senator Carter, Senator Scott Delano, the Public Service Commission, the Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi, and others.”

The remaining Coronavirus relief funds will be allocated as follows. $129,725,000 to hospitals, clinics, nonprofits, and childcare; $40 million to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency; $70 million to cities and counties; $20 million to the Mississippi Department of Corrections;  $15 million to tourism; $100 million to public universities and community and junior colleges;  $10 million to private schools and universities; $55 million to workforce training; $1 million to elections; $2.5 million to the judiciary; and $181,775,000 to the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund.

The Legislature had allocated Three hundred million in mid-May for a small business grant program, and $2,000 stipends for certain small businesses. The Legislature set aside $50 million to use at the Governor’s discretion.