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Government isn’t needed to bridge Mississippi’s digital divide

When it comes to fixing the problems facing our state, government’s best strategy is often to get out of the way. That’s especially true when it comes to expanding internet access to rural areas.

Despite efforts by state and local governments to improve internet access, Mississippi ranks 49th in the U.S. for broadband coverage. This has officials in some communities looking for a government-subsidized solution: municipal broadband.

Numerous government internet projects all across America have already failed. Likewise, many municipalities considering such projects already have several internet providers available to them without government getting involved.

While Mississippi doesn’t need local governments using tax dollars to build needless boondoggles, it does need a way to expand internet service to those not currently served. The fastest and cheapest way to make that happen is through a project recently announced by Microsoft president Brad Smith.

The project utilizes unused television stations, known as “white spaces,” to create a sort of high-speed “Super Wi-Fi” broadband service that can connect Mississippi’s rural communities without running broadband infrastructure to remote areas. The only thing standing in the way of this dream becoming a reality is the Federal Communications Commission.

The agency must move forward with its proposal to set aside three currently unused TV frequencies in each market in order for white spaces internet coverage to operate. Once the FCC takes that step, companies can begin expanding high-speed internet coverage to every hillside and hollow in Mississippi — without the high costs and environmental impacts associated with laying miles of wires to build a broadband communications network.

Other countries are already testing white spaces internet. In Malawi, one of the least developed nations in Africa, private sector providers are preparing to use television white spaces to rapidly bring Wi-Fi to millions of people. India is also looking to pioneer the use of white spaces to bring broadband coverage to rural areas.

If places like Malawi and India can successfully use white spaces to expand internet coverage, the FCC should allow rural Mississippians to benefit from the same technology.

That same white spaces technology is another example of why local governments should avoid broadband boondoggles: government internet programs are too expensive, become outdated too quickly and fail to provide service to people who can’t already access the internet.

That didn’t prevent Biloxi from seeking state permission to set up their own broadband network last legislative session. The legislation (HB 1716) promised to bring “more accessible, affordable and ubiquitous Internet services to all businesses and residents within the city at broadband speeds of at least one gigabit.” The current FCC standard for broadband coverage is 25Mpbs. Biloxi community leaders were ambitiously seeking to establish a system offering speeds 40 times faster than that.

 

In neighboring states, municipal broadband projects have failed spectacularly, leaving taxpayers on the hook for millions. Opelika, Alabama, for instance, has sunk $43 million into its city’s broadband network, shifting costs to electric ratepayers. Lafayette, Louisiana, has spent $160 million on its subsidized broadband network, at a cost of $9,750 per subscriber. Memphis lost more than $32 million on its network, which was later sold for a measly $11.5 million.

Government is already the largest employer in Mississippi, and it is already doing too much. Government needs to stay out of the broadband market, which is competitive and requires ongoing strategic investments in new technology to keep up. While high-speed internet can be a powerful economic catalyst for Mississippi communities, these same communities should avoid using scarce taxpayer resources to invest in technologies the private sector is better suited to provide.

Both the FCC and the Mississippi Legislature should get out of the way and let the marketplace bring affordable, high-quality internet service to Mississippi communities. Just because a problem exists, doesn’t mean government should try to solve it.

Jameson Taylor, Ph.D., is vice president for policy, Mississippi Center for Public Policy.