When the Mississippi Broadband Association (MSBA), a non-profit organization focused on enabling fast, reliable, affordable, and sustainable accessibility to broadband services for the unserved citizens of Mississippi, was conceived there was a realization that building a network is only the first step.
By creating a Connect and Literacy fund, the MSBA aims to help ensure individuals have access to affordable connectivity and play a significant role in the sustainability of those networks made possible by private and public capital.
The organization has set itself on a goal to enable digital literacy in Mississippi.
“One of the things that struck us from the beginning is that we can build these networks and have them there for people to pass their homes, but if we don’t get them connected to the network and provide the literacy to do so, what have done,” said Quinn Jordan, Executive Director, Mississippi Broadband Association (MSBA) during the Fiber for Breakfast Week 39 session. “We have built a superhighway with no onramps.”
An attractive destination
Mississippi has plenty of attractive attributes. While people in the state have had a lot of challenges, the state has lowest cost of living in the nation.
“We’re attractive for these businesses to look at to bring their workforce to Mississippi because we do have that cost of living and natural environment that’s attractive to those individuals that maybe want to move out and be part of that new population with fiber and fiber broadband expansion,” Jordan said.
One of the key issues that many people in the state face is poverty. Today, 18.7 percent of the state’s people live in poverty and MSBA wants to offer solutions by driving greater broadband expansion.
“We know that poverty in the state is a problem, and we want to address that problem,” Jordan said. “We know that broadband connectivity will be one of the biggest and broadest strokes we can do to help affect that issue.”
Another critical hurdle is a lack of participation in the Affordable Care Plan (ACP) program. Currently, only 6.8 percent of people in the state participate in the ACP program.
“We’re seeing that many of our ISPs are not participating ACP or if they do, they are not getting much luck on ACP take rates,” Jordan said. “It all goes back to trust in our communities.”
He added, "Looking at ACP as we move forward, it will be a true measuring stick on tackling poverty.”
Compounding the problem is the fact that there are not many people who even own any computing device. Jordan said that 44.7% of people in the state don’t have access to a PC or a tablet. “This is a huge, huge number,” he said. “Devices are another barrier of entry.”
Overcoming rural issues
In Mississippi, a combination of issues affects people living in the state by not using broadband. Besides poverty, there’s the high-cost development of the networks, low digital literacy and low take rates.
“It’s a cocktail of problems in rural America where were having high cost per deployment of these networks into areas that are less financially able to afford the products,” Jordan said. “They also don’t know to use the products, which affects the take rate issue.”
The Connected Literacy Fund will take a three-pronged approach to resolve digital literacy:
· Affordability: The networks must be affordable. There’s a need to strike a balance between affordability and accessibility.
· Low-cost options: MSBA has encouraged local ISPs to look at ACP and the ACP expansion numbers. Since many people in rural areas live on fixed incomes, it is not attractive if they put another $30 or $40 on top of the ACP. The organization is encouraging people to incorporate broadband into their budget.
· Literacy: Once the service is made affordable, the next step is to teach people how to use it. Through its partnership with the FBA Education Superhighway and looking at how to bring in and scale training across the state to become broadband literate.
Once it helps people in the state achieve the first three goals, MSBA will focus on distributing devices. “We need to figure out how to attack the device problem,” Jordan said. “The $100 ACP is a start, but it’s not enough to get quality equipment in the hands of these individuals.”
Jordan said MSBA is also working with ISPs and telcos to understand the philanthropy side by “conducting equipment drives with our community anchor institutions and allowing for connectivity through devices.”
To sustain its program, the MSBA has set a goal to raise $10 million. Citizens can go to its website to donate to the fund.
Jordan said that getting this funding will be critical to meet its goals. “What we’re concerned with is we know that BEAD has money coming for literacy, but that money will run out over time,” he said.
After the $10 million fund is in place, MSBA is looking to hire someone who will work and coordinate with its extension services, libraries and anchor institutions.
“We need to make sure that anchor institutions have the support they need,” Jordan said. “We also need to make sure they have access to partners and devices so when these individuals go through this training program we allow them to graduate with a device to get on the information superhighway.”
Enabling sustainable networks
Rural areas pose several challenges to providers building out services, including low density, high cost, terrain and inflation.
The MSBA is looking at how to help providers operate and sustain networks in rural markets more effectively.
“As we talk about programs that offer matching funds and letters of credit, we need to help ISPs find good partners and navigate this letter of credit issue,” Jordan said.
But building sustainable networks is not just an ISP challenge. It’s also a community issue.
“What can communities do to sustain these networks,” Jordan said. “There has to be grass roots campaigns to identify obstacles and provide solutions ahead of broadband deployment related to contacts, national forest land, railroad crossings and water lines.”
MSBA is helping the communities by working with Congressman Roger Wicker’s office to deal with existing utilities. “His office has been really helpful in addressing the utility issue in Mississippi.”