By April Sowell
A representative of a communications company that received federal money to provide broadband internet service to rural Southwest Mississippi recently told residents and local officials that work would begin in the fall and would take three to four years to complete.
Conexon co-owner Jonathan Chambers hosted a meeting month at Southwest Community College’s Workforce Training Center, where residents were anxious to learn about broadband offerings through the company.
In 2020, the federal government turned its attention to the need for broadband in rural areas and the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction, which allowed companies to bid for the chance to provide broadband services in rural areas.
Conexon won the bid to provide broadband for rural census blocks in parts of Southwest Mississippi.
“Conexon will receive $55.8 million over 10 years for locations in Southwest Mississippi. Conexon began receiving this money in 2021,” said Sally Doty, director of the Broadband Expansion and Accessibility of Mississippi office.
If an address is within the RDOF area, Conexon is obligated to provide broadband to the address within the next few years, state officials said.
The Federal Communications Commission will oversee Conexon’s use of RDOF funds.
As with cable internet providers and other telecommunications services, Magnolia Electric will provide Conexon use of its utility poles to run fiber optic cable under an agreement the two companies are still in the process of developing.
“This was great news for the membership of Magnolia Electric Power who live in areas with no internet or cell service,” said Darrell Smith, general manager of Magnolia Electric Power.
In the event of storms, Magnolia Electric will repair/replace poles and restore power first, and the technicians with the communication companies will then restore their service, Smith said.
“We have begun the design process, and we plan to begin the ‘make ready work’ this fall, which involves making any changes that a pole may need before we attach the broadband,” Chambers said.
“Any communications company that uses our poles must go through the make ready work. It is all part of the process,” Smith said.
Chambers said Conexon will establish a local office and technicians to handle repairs and customer service. Conexon will also have the capacity available to add new customers near lines once the initial work is finished.
“Once we begin work, we will be sending various crews over the course of the next few years. We try to cover 20 to 25 miles a week, covering 1,000 miles a year. We estimate it will take us three to four years to complete our work in the area,” Chambers said.
Officials noted that not every rural resident currently without service may be able to receive internet through Conexon. Doty said residents can check for their address on the RDOF map on the BEAM website at beam.ms.gov.
But residents outside of the RDOF area should not lose hope, she said, noting that other funding is available.
Doty’s office oversees the use of Broadband Equity, Access & Deployment funding in our state. Mississippi will receive $1.2 billion to assist areas outside of the RDOF maps that are without broadband services.
“The funding my office will administer cannot go to RDOF-funded locations but will provide grant funding for non-RDOF areas that are unserved,” Doty said. “This will be awarded through a competitive grant process among internet providers.”
Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven attended the meeting and said she was excited for what awaits rural residents.
“We have been overlooked for long enough, and I am proud this is beginning,” she said.
By April Sowell