June 16, 2008

Broadband Penetration at a Crawl in Many Communities

By Cotton, C Richard

Many Mississippi citizens probably don't know the difference between dial-up and broadband. It's a safe bet, however, that most Mississippi businesses do.

And the businesses lucky enough to have access to it are cruising along at the same speed as much of the rest of the world. Without it, however, you might as well be somewhere treading backwater.

Dial-up Internet service is the slowest available; signals are received and transmitted along mostly copper telephone lines. The good news about dial-up is that it's available just about anywhere there is a conventional telephone line.

Broadband, on the other hand, is high-speed Internet service, many times faster than dial-up. High-speed Internet can bedelivered through telephone lines - at least fiber-optic lines - cable television cable and via a satellite dish mounted on the house or in the yard. (Satellite Internet service receives mixed reviews from its customers and generally requires an expensive initial equipment investment.)

According to Roberto Gallardo, research associate at Mississippi State University Southern Rural Development Center, statistics he has studied do not paint a rosy picture for proliferation (commonly called penetration) of high-speed Internet in the state. The usual counting method is to determine the number of counties that have at least one high-speed Internet line going into it.

"Twenty-five percent have zero lines in Mississippi," Gallardo reports.

Counter that with Tennessee, which in early May reached a benchmark according to Connected Tennessee, a state agency charged with getting everyone in the state on the high-speed electronic highway; fully half of Tennessee's homes are now connected to high- speed broadband.

"It's being recognized as being essential in education and business," Carol Hardwick, executive director of the Mississippi Economic Development Council, says of broadband penetration. "I know our membership knows it's a need." Her 600 members primarily comprise economic developers.

She surmises that broadband is going through the same thing cell phones and, much further back, even conventional telephone lines went through as people didn't initially recognize the value of those technological advances. Hardwick also noted that once a community or a user gets high-speed, it's probably easy to forget that almost everyone else does not have it.

Jennifer Spann, spokeswoman for the Mississippi Development Authority, says that agency, charged with business development in Mississippi, "is not focused" on getting broadband to homes and businesses.

200 projects underway

"The penetration rate for DSL (digital subscriber line) in Mississippi is a higher percentage that some other states," says Sue Sperry, spokesperson for AT&T Mississippi. "We're getting to homes and are working on 200 projects right now.

"Our goal is to continue, for 100% penetration." (DSL is a form of high-speed Internet service, offered by AT&T in three different speed options.)

One of the projects recently completed is wiring a Greenville neighborhood for DSL. Sperry says that, for now, "every single person in the state can get broadband" through a partnership with satellite company Wildblue. The agreement reduces the high installation and service costs of satellite. She claims it is much improved over previous satellite service.

Focused on fiber

"We're focusing on fiber optic," says Morgan Baldwin, president of MEGAPOP (Mississippi Economic Growth Alliance Point of Presence). MEGAPOP, the nonprofit owner of a circuitous North Mississippi broadband fiber-optic network, is working to supply large users such as hospitals and large businesses with its fiber-optic service, considered the best of the available transmission methods.

Baldwin explains that the network is being managed under contract by Jackson-based Telepak Networks. The goal is to get fiber optic- carried Internet service into homes and businesses in the northern third of the state.

"Government did not see this as a basic utility, but it is," says Baldwin. He says municipal, county and state governments are a primary focus of MEGAPOP education efforts. "People still think this is e-mail."

While e-mail is a component of Internet service, moving large image, video and audio files are more and more becoming primary uses of the technology.

Baldwin tells the story of a young boy in Sweden, where as with most European countries, broadband is available to practically everyone. The boy started a home-based Internet gaming site that now generates him an income exceeding his parents' combined income.

"He had the opportunity," says Baldwin.

Copyright Mississippi Business Journal May 26, 2008

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