Kizzie Moore’s mobile home sits off a rural dirt road in the middle of an old soybean field surrounded by trees, five miles from Brooksville, Miss. Yet when the 2020-2021 school year began, and the Noxubee County School District opted for virtual learning, her home off Highway 45 North became the gathering place for her son, twin son and daughter, nephews, niece and cousin to attend school.
Moore had an AT&T mobile hotspot that could support 10 devices, so the children gathered with their phones and tablets to log on to classes and complete assignments. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it worked.
“I had the mi-fi with my plan, so because of the internet service my house became the spot for them,” she told the Mississippi Free Press.
The absence of reliable internet became a daunting problem when the Noxubee County School District closed its doors to students in March 2020 as COVID numbers in the state rose. NCSD, like many other Mississippi schools, used coronavirus relief funds to purchase devices and hotspots for students in the district.
However, with multiple districts across the state and nation vying for devices, the wait was long. The hotspots arrived in Noxubee County in November, nearly four months after the start of school and eight months after virtual learning started.
The laptops and tablets followed in December. They were both a blessing and a curse in the rural district in the county on the southern tip of Appalachia that has historically suffered from a lack of resources, materials and investment. The district serves a nearly 98% Black student body in an area where 41.3% of the families live below the poverty level. The school district is still under a state-mandated school takeover that began in 2018 after financial and academic concerns prompted the Mississippi Department of Education to take control.
The district’s educational struggles are reflective of years of disparities. During the late 1960s, as white resistance to public-school integration was sensing the looming defeat, white residents of Noxubee County opened the private Central Academy in the county seat of Macon in 1968, drawing most white students from public schools. With the separation came disinvestment in the public schools and a continual effort to use public tax dollars in openly racist schools.
Since then, shuttered factories and declining job opportunities have contributed to shrinking Noxubee County populations and income levels, leaving the majority-Black county fighting to preserve what’s left of a once-thriving economy, while missing vital infrastructure such as broadband internet access that many wealthier and whiter areas of Mississippi enjoy. These disparities and the rural nature of the county left it unprepared to weather the weight of COVID.
Missing broadband alone was a major symbol of long-time structural disparities in one of Mississippi’s poorest and most neglected counties—but other counties struggled with it, too. Consistent broadband in Mississippi is a glaring problem in desperate need of a workable solution.
Broadband Access is a Statewide Issue
Kizzie Moore quickly learned the downside of the stopgap solution of hotspots.
“Prior to the school giving out hotspots for everybody, my internet was perfectly fine. When they gave out the hotspots, it slowed down,” Kizzie Moore said. “The twins were in the same class, so we had to stop them from using two different devices and put them on one because when they would be on at the same time, it would crash.”
Moore contacted Noxubee County School District Network Administrator Rodney Tate who told her that with the number of students attempting to use the local towers, the system was bottlenecking.
Northern Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley says that what the citizens of Noxubee encountered was not limited to that area, however. “The problems in Noxubee County are prevalent in the other 81 counties whether they are large counties like DeSoto, which have a lot of people who are disconnected, or very, very rural counties like Sharkey or Humphries—the same issues exist,” Presley said in an interview.
The Aberdeen School District found itself in a similar situation. The town is about 55 miles north of Macon in Monroe County. Recent 2020 census data show that Aberdeen has a population of a little less than 5,000 people with a median income of $40,214. More than 70% of the town is Black and 25% white. During the 2019-2020 school year, the district had 1,114 students. The Aberdeen School district consists of six elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school that serve the students in the metro Aberdeen area. Nearly 23% of its students live below the poverty line.
Aberdeen Public Schools spent the 2020-2021 school year with a hybrid school option. Each class attended in-person twice per week and virtually twice per week. All students attended classes online on Fridays. The district made the best of COVID relief funds by purchasing computers and hotspots for nearly every student in the district, which they received in late 2020.
“With the pandemic, we were able to get computers for all students, so we are one-to-one at the high school,” former Aberdeen High School principal Dana Bullard said in an interview. “We were also able to get hotspots for some of our students who were not able to access online classes. So the pandemic was bad because we were not (hosting normal school hours), but we were able to move to a one-to-one situation with Chromebooks.”
Noxubee County also used CARES ACT funding to equip students with necessary technology. However, unlike Aberdeen’s hybrid school schedule, students in the Noxubee County School District worked solely from home.
‘A Hotspot Is OK As a Bridge’
Overall, Aberdeen was better off than Noxubee County students, but a few students were still unable to access the internet due to their rural location. In response, the district was arguably better organized than in Macon, partnering with local churches to give students safe areas to park and use the district-provided hotspots. They also added routers to the school parking lot expanding the reach of the school’s wi-fi.
District school buses, which were also outfitted with wi-fi, were parked in areas of the county where service was spotty or absent.
“We have some students who are right outside of the city limits, and those are some of the students where the hotspots are not working,” current Aberdeen High School Principal Tracy Fair said in an interview. “It would be anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes of travel time for those students (to get to an area where the hotspots worked).”
Commissioner Presley believes that although these measures were great short-term options, they are not sufficient in the current economic, social and educational climate.
“A hotspot is OK as a bridge,” Presley said. “It was something that we knew in the middle of the pandemic was the quickest thing that could be deployed in many cases just to get some form of access out there, but it can’t be where we stop. We cannot as a state accept that hotspots are going to be the fate of our schoolchildren. We also cannot accept that modern education in Mississippi means going down to McDonalds and sitting in the parking lot to do your homework. That is unacceptable.”
Presley said what is needed is universal broadband. Back in 2019, he pulled together bipartisan support for the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act in 2019, which the Mississippi Legislature passed, and former Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law. It allows Mississippi’s member-owned electric power associations, or EPAs, to deliver broadband internet. The goal is a fiber-optic broadband connection to every home in Mississippi.
“It opened the door for cooperatives like 4-County Electric, which serves Noxubee County, to be able to provide broadband,” Presley said. “That’s the model that we knew in 2017 and 2018 was fixing this problem in rural America. It guaranteed universal access.”
Co-oping Broadband into Rural Mississippi
Broadband companies do not make a profit when covering a large area with limited households per mile, so cooperative electric companies, also called co-ops, have filled the need. Co-ops are member-owned, not-for-profit electric companies. Their operations are democratic in the sense that they are required to return revenue to the subscribers through stable rates and infrastructure. 4 County Electric Power Association, the cooperative that provides electricity to Noxubee County, services nearly 50,000 electric customers, including 37,000 residential, in its nine-county coverage area—which also includes rural portions of Lowndes, Oktibbeha and Clay counties.
The Columbus-based utility company created FASTnet, a for-profit subsidiary, to handle its internet service in late 2020.
“Essentially, what we are talking about is building an entire broadband system,” Commissioner Presley said. “It took a long time to build the entire electric system for the 4-County Electric Power Association. They will be building a broadband system that is the same size, and they will truncate that (build) down in three or four years. It is a major undertaking.” That is, they will shorten the time frame it takes to build the broadband system.
“I think it is reminiscent of when we began building rural power in the 1930s and 1940s, except it all has to be done a lot faster,” he added.
During the mid-1930s, nine out of 10 rural homes in the United States did not have electricity. This limited the economies of those areas to exclusively agriculture.
“Electric co-ops were formed to bring electricity to rural areas of the states that the for-profit electric companies did not want to serve because it did not make economic sense,” 4-County’s Manager of Public Relations and Marketing Jon Turner said in an interview. “The people in the places that didn’t have electricity got together and formed these electric co-ops. This resulted in the Rural Electrification Act and the Rural Electrification Administration.”
On May 11, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 7037 establishing the Rural Electrification Administration. The Rural Electrification Act passed one year later, opening the door for the financial support to establish electric systems in rural areas.
In 1937 after the REA recognized that cooperatives were much more interested in the funding than investor-owned utility companies that saw no profit in providing electricity to rural areas, it drafted the Electric Cooperative Corporation Act, allowing states to form and operate not-for-profit, consumer-owned electric cooperatives.
A decade later, the cooperatives added telephone services. Now the co-ops that have historically brought electricity and telephone services say they are preparing to solve the infrastructure issue of our day—providing broadband to rural America. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance said this in its “Cooperatives Fiberize Rural America: A Trusted Model For The Internet Era” policy brief: “More than 109 rural electric cooperatives have invested in fiber optics to provide broadband access or have fiber projects underway.”
Today’s broadband efforts are a striking parallel to earlier utility cooperative efforts. Many consider broadband as essential for health-care access, education and employment as electricity once was. The pandemic proved that it was as necessary as any utility.
Historically ‘Redlined’ Areas Now Face Digital Divides
Stories of students and even teachers sitting in church and restaurant parking lots in rural and poor areas like Noxubee County to complete assignments became a staple of what many have referred to as “pandemic schooling.” However, the barriers existed long before COVID-19 highlighted them.
Millions of Americans living without broadband are disproportionately low-income, non-white and residents of rural areas. They generally lack equal access to banking, education, health care, housing and other areas. The absence of broadband is often the result of decades of systemic problems compounding on each other.
Like many inequities, the digital divide can be linked to segregation. The Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University recently released a study connecting digital disparities to redlining—a practice where services are withheld from communities considered a financial risk. These communities were often disproportionately Black or Hispanic.
The Annenberg study explained that New Deal-era housing practices that then segregated communities are now affecting broadband access. Neighborhoods deemed that the now-illegal Home Owners Loan Corporation deemed dangerous decades ago still remain underdeveloped with lower tax bases and property values. The study links broadband disparities to neighborhoods historically deemed risky for investment by federal housing policies.
Report author Benjamin Skinner told the Hechinger Report: “What we show in our report is that place matters, and these historical disparities matter. It’s linked to identity, it’s linked to race, ethnicity, it’s linked to income, it’s all of these pieces. These connections between these pieces matter.”
‘With Rural Areas Come Poorer Areas’
Income inequality is also a major contributor to the digital divide. Broadband service is typically expensive. The Pew Research Center published a survey last February showing that low-income families are less likely to have home internet. The Census Bureau published a similar study that shows large gaps in the number of broadband subscriptions in low-income rural counties and more wealthy ones.
The research indicates that 65% of homes in counties with median incomes below $50,000 have broadband compared to 77% of homes in counties with median incomes over $50,000. The percentage drops to 61.7% of households in lower-income “completely rural” counties, such as Noxubee County. In fact, the “mostly rural” and “completely rural” areas located mostly in the South commonly have lower broadband subscription rates than the national average.
“With rural areas come poorer areas,” 4-County’s Turner said. “When you are talking about counties, I don’t know exactly where Noxubee County falls in the state from top to bottom, but I imagine they are in the bottom quartile. So we’ve got some places out there that are a little poorer.”
Turner’s thoughts are on target. The Mundi Index, which combines data from several sources, shows that Noxubee County is the 18th poorest county in Mississippi. The University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions initiative and Princeton University’s Center for Research on Child Wellbeing report published in February ranked Noxubee County as 69th of the most deeply disadvantaged counties in the United States.
In 2016, 247WallSt.com rattled some Noxubee residents and natives when it named once-wealthy county seat Macon as Mississippi’s “poorest town” after decades of shrinking populations and economic base.
Pilot Program: Clay, Choctaw, Noxubee Counties
Cooperatives are uniquely situated to help the state get connected. The Mississippi Legislature passed a law in 2019 to change the laws to allow electric co-ops to provide broadband. They already service 85% of the acreage in Mississippi. The state has 26 member co-ops that provide service to nearly 2 million subscribers.
That means that they already have the infrastructure in place to successfully bring broadband to all rural customers in the state. The service is desperately needed, especially during a pandemic as this reporter showed already about Noxubee County: U.S. Census data rank Mississippi with the lowest rate of broadband subscribers per capita. The state could draw more than $700 million in federal funding for broadband from the CARES Act, FCC grants and the recently signed federal infrastructure bill.
In October 2020, after a member vote, 4-County began construction for a fiber-optic build-out projected to cost a total of $110 million.
“We were hesitant at first. We talked to our membership and took surveys to get the appetite of our members. We found out that they wanted it,” Turner said.
“Then COVID hit, which changed the playing field and made us and our members understand that we are getting to the point where our members understand that we are getting to the point where reliable broadband isn’t just what you want but something you need to have.”
The cooperative received $6 million from the Mississippi Electric Cooperatives Broadband COVID-19 Grant Program, which the Mississippi Legislature enacted after passage of the bill in 2019. Lawmakers designated the money to be used in areas deemed either unserved or underserved by broadband.
“Ordinarily, that’s not where you would start a project like this, but these were areas that really needed it,” Turner said. “So our construction plan started there and now is working to expand.”
The pilot program will provide parts of west Clay, northeast Choctaw and north Noxubee counties with 500 miles of fiber. The 4-County website boasts that the company has “created a fiber internet service from scratch, with more than 7 million feet of fiber hung and 1650 plus customers in some of our most underserved areas.”
The company received $35 million from a Rural Development Opportunity Fund auction held in October 2020, which it will receive in installments over the next 10 years. 4-County Electric also fronted $7.5 million of the start-up cost. It expects to cover the rest of the cost with customer revenue. It has used the initial funds to cover the cost of labor, materials and equipment for the infrastructure.
FASTnet set up its first customer on Dec. 15, 2020, and is currently providing more than 2,000 customers with broadband service.
‘Unlimited Data for Up to 10 Devices’
The area in Brooksville where Kizzie Moore lives in northern Noxubee County was one of the first areas to receive FASTnet services. She and her sister signed up in summer 2021. They pay $65 a month for the service.
“It’s unlimited data for up to 10 devices. If I am on the computer and my sons are online, it’s not a problem,” Moore said. “We have Internet-based televisions, and I have four televisions, and they all can be on at the same time with no buffering issues.”
4-County’s long-term goal is to build 5,400 miles of fiber across the entire system providing access to every subscriber in their coverage area. Then it plans to complete a fiber ring around the service territory for communication to substations and for service redundancy. The buildout, which will occur in four phases, is scheduled to be completed in 2024.
“Everyone in Noxubee County who is a customer of 4-County Electric Power Association will eventually have a fiber to the home connection, which will provide them a minimum speed of 100 MB upload and 100 MB download,” Presley said. “The cost is somewhere around $60 a month for unlimited, no throttling, no data caps service.”
However, COVID-19 helped delay the already slow process of providing stable broadband to every home in Mississippi.
“We were only a year into the Broadband Enabling Act when the pandemic hit,” Commissioner Presley said. “There are going to be some natural delays—a rain storm or a tornado. We had an ice storm in February which set us back a couple of weeks. It also takes time to build the workforce and supply chain and the things that are required.
“Still, we’ve seen monumental progress.”
The Challenges of Unfamiliar Territory
The endeavor has created some challenges as well. Broadband services are unfamiliar territory for 4-County, and the size and rural nature of the project made it very expensive. The largest hurdle has been starting a new company from scratch.
Electric power associations must improve grid reliability, deploy new customer service models and operational processes. They must also consider energy conservation and compliance with environmental laws. This requires learning and acquiring new technology and modernizing existing electrical grids.
For now, many of the electric-company employees are serving double duty as employees of the new broadband arm. Many of FASTnet’s current employees have previous telecom experience. “We have to staff up, and we have to learn the Internet business, the technology, how to service that technology,” Turner said.
4-County is using contractors for much of the initial construction. However, the build has brought jobs to the area. The company has hired installers who must be knowledgeable in basic in-home installation and specialized skills such as splicing for which the company provides training. Turner says that they have also hired one network engineer, a more specialized job.
However, skills and training can strengthen the workforce that will be needed across the state as cooperatives expand their offerings.
“Many of the basic skills can be learned through workforce training,” Turner said in a followup email to the Mississippi Free Press. “Fiber technology training at Mississippi’s community colleges would probably be good considering the scope of broadband projects going on around the state.”
The company must also learn the new business of sales.
“Quite frankly, as a not-for-profit electric cooperative, we are not in the sales business. Our marketing and our support of our members is basically on helping how to use power as wisely as they can and as efficiently as they can. So we are not really good at the sales part, but we have to turn a profit because that’s the only way we are going to have a return on the investment and not disadvantage our members.”
However, he added, the completion of the fiber buildout has the potential to revolutionize small rural areas in the state by providing opportunities that were not available before.
“It allows people to live anywhere they want now … and work for a company in New York, Chicago or Germany from Brooksville or Shuqualak, Mississippi. You can still live where you are from and still have a chance at a job that might be better than what you have locally,” Turner said.
“It (also) will hopefully keep rural flight from happening so people don’t feel like they have to move away from rural Mississippi and have a chance to raise their children in a competitive environment because they will now have the same Internet access that anyone else has.”
A Successful Model in Wisconsin
The Reedsburg Utility Commission in Reedsburg, Wis., built a fiber network that provides affordable internet at high speeds nearly two decades ago. RUC’s deployment of fiber lines was the first of its kind back in 2002. Ten thousand residents in Reedsburg, Loganville, Lake Delton, and surrounding rural communities receive their water, electricity and triple-play from RUC.
Dave Mikonowicz, who worked for the Reedsburg Utility Commission for 22 years as the general manager, says RUC took advantage of several federal grants and stimulus funds to create the service. The process began when the utility company wanted a fiber loop around the city for their wells and pump stations. Private-sector companies denied their request so they began building their own.
The local school district then asked to partner with them, and together they built their own fiber network. Community members suggested that they use the loops for broadband access. After locating the necessary equipment, the collaboration began overbuilding the city.
The initial cost came from a $300,000 loan from the utility company itself, then they received the first funds of $5.2 million in 2009 through President Obama’s stimulus bill. Those funds allowed the commission to expand into rural service areas. It secured other funding from local banks to make up the more than $7 million cost of the build.
It took four to five years to build the infrastructure, Mikonowicz said in an interview on a Wisconsin Public radio podcast aired on Aug. 5, 2020. Now the company offers broadband at 1,000 megabytes per second for downloading and 1,000 megabytes per second for uploading at about $50 per month. Gigabit services are also available for commercial and residential customers. It continues to expand the coverage area even today.
Pushback Over Competition
Mikonowicz noted that Reedsburg’s success is not without cost, though. Private-sector companies were not happy with the competition. The companies urged state legislators to pass a law that would limit municipalities’ ability to add communications services. In fact, Wisconsin law now only allows municipalities to own and operate networks that service subscribers pay for. The law also provides telecom incumbents opportunities to stall the projects by requiring feasibility studies and public hearings.
Municipal broadband providers are also prohibited from subsidizing service costs and are tasked with including additional fees that ensure that their cost is not less than that of incumbent providers. Wisconsin is not alone. States across the country have explicit restrictions or other barriers to municipal broadband expansion due to competitive concerns of private providers.
Cooperatives in some areas of the country face similar issues. The laws that were designed to create them must now be changed to allow them to provide broadband. Mississippi’s 2019 “Enabling Act” removed that hurdle for the state’s co-ops.
Mississippi State Rep. Carl Mickens cosponsored the bill that opened the door for the utility companies to expand their offerings. “All the legislation and everything that we needed to do to meet the federal guidelines is now in place,” he said.
Rep. Mickens lives in Macon and is a Noxubee County native. He represents Noxubee, Winston and Lowndes counties and serves on the state’s Public Utilities Committee.
He has firsthand knowledge of the importance of the Legislature helping to make broadband a reality in rural communities.
“We don’t have it in all areas of Brooksville, yet. We only have it in certain areas, but it has already been a tremendous help for families, especially our school-age kids,” he said. “They can get on the internet and do the things they need to do for school.”
Up to this point there has been no opposition to granting the cooperatives the opportunity to provide Internet access to the often-forgotten corners of the state. ”In the meetings that I have been in, there hasn’t been any open dialogue about competition from any agencies,” Mickens said. “No one is kicking up any dust. The country is for it, and Mississippi is definitely for it.”
‘Everyone Just Has to Trust the Process’
Still deploying broadband in rural Mississippi is expensive. Federal funding has paid for much of the build by rural cooperatives so far. Mickens says that the CARES Act Broadband Act granted the state $150 million. The state used it to build 5,833 miles of fiber to 16,504 locations as of June 30, 2021.
“When the federal government grants the state money, they note what it can be used for. Then we as state legislatures do likewise and allocate it specifically,” Mickens said. “We don’t hold it in a fund or pull it out to help with this or that. It is for the purpose of adding broadband.”
The State of Mississippi is now poised to invest even more in broadband connectivity for its citizens. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said in a statement that Mississippi will soon see a minimum of $100 million for broadband infrastructure from President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
“It’s been well thought through, and money is going to go to remote areas, low-population areas, areas of poverty and the underserved,” Mickens said. “Everyone just has to trust the process. “Right now, we have a lot of funding from the federal government and the state for these projects.”
Still, there is discussion on who should have access to these funds.
In the recent Senate Energy Committee hearings, representatives from major cable companies urged lawmakers to grant them access to the incoming funding. T.J. Taylor, executive director of the Mississippi Cable Telecommunications Association, testified that federal funding should not be limited to rural cooperatives.
Taylor suggested that broadband grants funds be made available to all internet service providers in the state. Mayo Flint, president of AT&T Mississippi, urged lawmakers to make grant programs competitive. He stated that his company had already invested more than $750 million to expand fiber connections across the state and that it was a major priority for his company. He is pushing for a competitive bidding process for the funds.
“We think that we are well-positioned to partner with the state in this program, whatever program you put together, in order to further expand fiber deployment,” Flint said in the November hearings, which were streamed live via Zoom.
Mickens says the decision on who has access to incoming infrastructure funds will be finalized during the state legislative session.
“Once we open the session in three to four weeks and begin holding committee meetings and dealing with the cooperatives and cable network companies, we will have a decision on how all of this will take place,” he said.
As the state poises itself to use federal funds to expand broadband, Presley believes that the work the state has done to date is a major step toward his goal of ensuring that all Mississippians have access to stable high-speed Internet access.
“We want to be prepared. One of the ways that we are preparing in Mississippi, not only for the pandemic, but for education of the future, modern health care, economic development and just plain old modern life is to get a fiber to the home connection to every home in the state. That’s our goal.”
That preparation would have meant a world of difference for Shawanda Readus whose children used cellular hotspots when the Noxubee County Schools were closed. Readus struggled to manage working and virtual schooling with limited resources. She turned her living room into a classroom and her mother, a retired school district employee, helped keep the children on track. FASTnet has not yet come to Readus’s home, but her mother has the service in her Sandyland Community home where the children spend a good deal of their time after school. She can immediately see how things would have been had it been in place when the schools closed.
“It would have made a big difference. We had three computers hooked up to the Internet and I had a computer myself hooked up so that I could make sure they were doing their work. That made (the Internet) run slower,” Readus said. “They are able to do their work now. They can actually hook their laptops up to the broadband. It’s much easier for them. (At her house), there is no buffering. You don’t have to wait for pages to load. It pops right up.”
This in-depth Noxubee County historic report is part of the “(In)Equity and Resilience, Black Women, Systemic Barriers and COVID-19” project looking at systemic inequities long facing Mississippi’s Black women and their families and institutions that the pandemic revealed and exacerbated in Mississippi. In upcoming weeks and months, the BWC Project team is publishing what their systemic reporting and numerous solution circles with Black women revealed about three counties (so far): Noxubee (education); Hinds (violence and public safety) and Holmes (health care adequacy and access). The journalists are following up each county overview with specific solutions-journalisms pieces about problems their reporting revealed.
Also see: Jackson Advocate Publisher DeAnna Tisdale’s opening column introducing the BWC Project and reporting collaboration. Visit the full BWC Project microsite here.