Northcentral Connect announced the first two phases of its fiber-to-the-home project, which plans to bring broadband internet to underserved parts of the county by using a grant from a COVID-19 relief bill alongside company investments.
“We are investing daily in this community, and we want our fiber to be a project to benefit the community,” Kevin Doddridge, CEO of Northcentral Electric Cooperative, said. “A gigabyte speed is a game changer, especially for families.”
Some residents in rural parts of DeSoto County, though, say that the plan leaves out people who really need the access while including households that already have other internet options.
“I have not had home internet since 2013,” Shannon Franks, who will not be offered internet through phase one of the project, said. “We were under the impression that it was going to be able to service my area as well as west of 305, south of 305 and other rural areas. That is not what they’re doing, at least not now.”
Franks said that her family relies on cell service to do everything from schoolwork to using the internet. She has two children in high school who have difficulty completing their schoolwork because even the cell service can be too slow to complete assignments.
She said that she could not even consider distance learning for her children amid the coronavirus pandemic because there was no way for them to complete their schoolwork online at home.
“The people being serviced have multiple service providers at their fingertips,” she said. “(Northcentral leaders) have not started this on the right note whatsoever.”
Doddridge said that the area that will get service through the first phase of the project was decided by the Federal Communications Commission’s standards of who is underserved in the county.
He said that there is also an amount of service that has to be provided by the end of the year to receive the grant, and that the only way to get that amount of work done was to add internet access to areas near the Byhalia waystation.
Northcentral Connect has a fiber optic waystation in Byhalia, and Doddridge said that it would not have been realistic to try to create a new station to provide service to more remote parts of the county.
The $6 million project has been in part funded by the Mississippi Electric Cooperatives Broadband COVID-19 Act, which offered $2.8 million to bring faster, more reliable broadband to rural residents of Mississippi. The grant was part of the larger $73 million program to promote more internet access across the United States.
“(The Byhalia substation) provides us a gateway to the most underserved,” Doddridge said.
He said that even though he understood that some people would feel left out by the first phase because of the time constraints but also knew that frustration showed the importance of the project to people in rural parts of the county.
The first phase of the project will mean internet access offered to 1,000-1,500 people through 50 miles of fiber-optic cable by the end of the year, Doddridge said. The company will probably not make a profit on the project for 10 years, according to his projections, but he said that they are doing it to serve the community.
“We don’t intend to leave anyone out,” he said.
Still, some residents feel that they are being left behind after initial excitement over the project.
Jason Holmes, who will not get internet access from the first phase of the project, said that he has been looking for reasonable internet service for years.
Like Franks, he used satellite internet services. Those services offered slow speeds and high prices, Holmes and Franks said.
“$110 a month is a whole lot of money to a lot of people out there,” Holmes, who has had a house in the area since the late 1980s, said.
Holmes has been on a waitlist to get service from an outdated DSL line in his neighborhood for years. He said he checks in periodically on the service, but hasn’t been able to get a connection.
“It’s just a simple question: why are they not allocating some of these funds to the real rural area?” Holmes said.
“It’s not just a rural internet issue, it’s a civil services issue,” he said. “When I moved out here, I went five years, eight years back in time.”