West Jasper School District in Mississippi Uses CARES Funds to Connect Students' Homes to Fiber

States have gotten creative over the last half year in making use of CARES Act funding to improve connectivity for families and students, but one project in Mississippi shows that oftentimes a good old Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) build is best.  The West Jasper School District (enrollment 1,700), sixty miles southeast of Jackson, partnered with telephone and network operator TEC to do just that with a project aimed at bringing Internet access to 125 families that do not have it in the area. 

Reaching the Unconnected

The effort is funded by $390,000 in CARES funding via the Mississippi Pandemic Response Broadband Availability Act managed by the Mississippi Department of Education. The initiative was established by HB 1788, which aimed at “providing payments to eligible Mississippi public school districts, independent schools and Native American tribal school districts . . . as equitably and efficiently as possible after determining the unserved areas of the state . . . to increase or gain broadband access.” It passed both chambers unanimously in July, allocating $50 million for the effort. 

Ten miles of new fiber were installed along County Road 12 to bring 135 previous unconnected homes online to TEC’s (a regional telephone and broadband company which offers services in Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi) network at the end of November. Current users connected to its fiber infrastructure can choose between symmetrical 250 Mbps, 500 Mbps, and gigabit tiers for $55/month, $65/month, and $80/month respectively. 

School District Superintendent Warren Woodrow said of the project:

We felt like the best use of it would be to put fiber in the ground and to serve our students and our community.

The public school district serves the towns of Bay Springs, Louin, and Montrose, and is 64% Black and 36% white. The area depends heavily on the lumber industry, and more than 40% of the county of 16,000 has no access at basic broadband at speeds of 25/3 Mbps (Megabits per second) (see yellow area on map). Covid-19 cases in the region are high, with almost 800 cases in the county and 20 deaths, and as a result the school offered students and families a virtual option for school this year.

In many ways the state has been taking a leading role recently in addressing the problem of the unconnected. Two years ago it changed state law to allow electric cooperatives to offer broadband service, and in August we wrote about how at least 15 of the 25 co-ops in the state are pursuing projects. In the same legislative session, the legislature passed SB 3046, which created a $65 million pot of money to go to electric cooperatives building network infrastructure. Collectively, the state dedicated almost a quarter of the $1.25 billion in relief funds allotted to the Mississippi to broadband expansion and k-12 learning.