State leaders working to bridge digital gap in rural communities
PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss. (WLOX) - The coronavirus pandemic has caused more jobs, schools and even healthcare to go virtual. However, some people who live in rural areas say the lack of high-speed internet is exposing a great digital divide.
The threat of coronavirus forced Pastor Brian Schoolcraft to close his church for weeks.
"A lot of other churches have went to virtual meetings and stuff like that,” he said.
But for his congregation at Vidalia Community Mission, no service takes a literal meaning.
“They just don’t have access to the internet, and we have not been able to do that with most of our people just because of the lack of availability,” said Schoolcraft.
The church is a social hub for residents of Vidalia Estates mobile homes in rural Pass Christian. Schoolcraft fears his community could get left behind as the pandemic pushes more essential services online.
“If you have to choose between eating and providing food and clothes for your children, or internet," he said, “internet’s going to fall to the bottom of the pile.”
Public service commissioner Dane Maxwell says he’s pushing for better broadband infrastructure in rural areas.
“We want to zap all the gaps out there and fill them up with good internet service and cell service.”
“There’s not a problem we have in Mississippi we can’t fix with money,” Maxwell said.
Maxwell says state lawmakers are trying to secure funding from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
“There’s 960 million dollars sitting in an account at FCC just for Mississippi, and they won’t release it yet,” Maxwell said. “So, we’re working to get it released.”
The goal is to expand FIBER for Broadband and wireless 5G technology. Maxwell says private energy companies plan to match the state government’s contribution to the cause.
“Energy companies out there that are all over Mississippi, and they cover a lot of this rural area so they’re the perfect people to grab onto that fiber and extend it out,” Maxwell said.
Rural residents hope for better broadband access, but at affordable rates.
“In a perfect world, I think that would be great, you know," Schoolcraft said. "But when it comes down to it, it’s just how much does it all cost?”
The Public Service Commission is doing a survey of areas with poor cellular or internet coverage, which can be found be clicking here.
If you have other concerns regarding your wireless or internet service (e.g., billing, contracts, etc.), please contact the Southern District Toll-Free at (800) 356-6429.
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