$75 million ‘COVID-19 Connectivity Act’ set to expand rural broadband

With Sunday’s vote by the legislature to remove the Mississippi state flag, the passage of another important bill on Monday may have flown a bit under the radar. 

The “COVID-19 Connectivity Act”, authored by Senator Joel Carter, will provide $75 million of CARES act funding to electric co-ops and other providers in an effort to expand broadband internet access in rural areas as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. 

“The Legislature further finds and declares that due to the COVID-19 pandemic there is an immediate increased need for reliable Internet service in rural Mississippi, including expanded rural broadband capacity to facilitate and assist with distance learning, telemedicine, and telework and which is required for citizens to continue their education, receive necessary services, and work in a healthy and safe environment,” the bill reads. 

Funding for the immediate deployment of fiber broadband infrastructure will be disbursed by the Mississippi Public Utilities Staff through a grant program. Co-ops can apply for grants of up to $6 million. 

Public Service Commission Chairman Dane Maxwell applauded the passage of the bill, stating that this is an important step toward moving Mississippi forward. 

“This is a huge step in the state’s work to connect every Mississippi home, student, and business to essential services like high-speed internet,” Maxwell said. “I’d like to thank all of the residents of the southern district who took time to reach out to our office. Their feedback will be instrumental in identifying the largest problem areas. My staff and I are excited to work through this issue and I look forward to continue working on this until we get the issue of connectivity solved for everyone in Mississippi,” Maxwell said.

Of the $75 million allocated in the bill, $65 million will go toward co-ops and “other providers” can apply for the remaining $10 million.

In addition to the expansion of telehealth services, the effort to quickly deploy broadband in rural areas comes as the pandemic continues to cast a shadow over businesses and the upcoming school year. Distance work and learning have become the norm for many, but these funds will help to bridge the gap for those employees and students who live in underserved areas.