A new federal grant program and an emerging technology could be the tools used by the state’s non-profit electric power associations to get high-speed internet to their customers.

On April 12, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai announced a proposal to award $20.4 billion over the next decade toward rural broadband networks in a program called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

This would be repurposed money from the FCC’s Universal Service Fund which already provides money for extending rural broadband service in addition to low-income phone service and low-coast broadband access for schools and libraries.

Thanks to a change in state law, EPAs in mostly-rural Mississippi are well placed to enter the reverse auctions to receive grants from the new federal program. A reverse auction differs from a conventional one since it has one buyer and many potential sellers. 

It would increase Mississippi’s reliance on federal funds. 

The Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act was signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant, went into effect immediately and it allows the state’s 26 EPAs, also known as cooperatives, to provide broadband to their primarily rural customer base.

The new law requires EPAs to conduct economic feasibility studies before providing broadband services, maintain the reliability of their electric service, maintain the same pole attachment fees for an EPA-owned broadband affiliate as for private entities wishing to use the EPA’s infrastructure and submit a publicly-available compliance audit annually.

According to data from the latest FCC wireless competition report, there is a digital divide in Mississippi. Ninety-five percent of urban residents in Mississippi have access to high-speed internet service (defined as 25 megabits per second). In rural areas, only half of residents have access to that level of internet service. In 12 of the state’s 82 counties, five percent of the population or less has access to high-speed internet.

In 27 counties, only 25 percent or less of the population has high-speed internet service available.

The technology that might bridge the divide in Mississippi and in other rural states could be 5G (fifth generation) wireless. Signals in 5G operate on three different spectrum bands that include:

  • Low band — 600 megahertz, 800 megahertz and 900 megahertz. 
  • Mid band — Frequency bands of 2.5 gigahertz, 3.5 gigahertz and 3.7 gigahertz to 4.2 gigahertz. 
  • High band — 28 gigahertz, 24 gigahertz, 37 gigahertz, 39 gigahertz and 47 gigahertz (millimeter wave or high band). 

5G can also be supported on unused parts of the spectrum below 4 gigahertz, which is the frequency range used by present 4G LTE coverage. 

Right now, the FCC has already started auctioning bandwidths in the low band. A recent report by the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste recommends that FCC also conduct spectrum auctions with strong oversight for mid band, with the proceeds going to taxpayers. 

According to the report, since 1994, the FCC has conducted 101 spectrum auctions that have generated $121,672,180,000 for taxpayers with the awards of 44,499 licenses. The report also says the mid band auction could generate an additional $11 billion to $60 billion for taxpayers, depending on how much of the spectrum is put on the market.

5G will be much faster, capable in urban areas of speeds of 100 gigabits per second for the high band, which is 100 times faster than 4G. Also, 5G has the advantage of low latency, which is the time that passes between when information is received and when it can be used by the device on the network. This means it could be used to replace conventional WiFi. 

Since 5G uses shorter wavelengths, the antennas can be much smaller, which means a tower can support more antennas. This allows 1,000 more devices per meter than what’s supported by the existing 4G network.

The problem with high band is these wavelength have a much shorter effective range. They require a clear line of sight between the mobile device and the antenna. These signals can easily be blocked by solid objects, rain and even humidity, which would be a problem in sweltering Mississippi summers.

Also, 5G download speeds in rural areas would be only fractionally as quick as those in urban areas with large numbers of antennas, which would be supported by trunk lines made of fiber-optic cable.

These issues would provide complications for using 5G as the means to extend high-speed internet service to rural areas of Mississippi. 

The marketplace is already working on solutions.

AT&T has been testing a way to use power lines (Project AirGig) to deliver 5G service. The technology has already been successfully tested in Georgia and internationally. The company says it could be used to bring high-speed internet to customers in suburban and rural neighborhoods.