What will BEAD mean for the poorest U.S. communities?

No one questions that the upcoming $42 billion dollars in Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) funding will have a drastic impact across the U.S. But just how much impact will the money – and the connectivity it brings – have on the poorest, most underserved pockets of the country?

Last month, the U.S. Census Bureau sought to shed some light on this question, debuting a new ACCESS BROADBAND map created via a collaboration with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The localized census tract-level map is intended to assist lawmakers and the public in understanding how broadband investment could impact state and municipal economies.

Case in point:The maps show that two states in the nation, Arkansas and Mississippi, have a household broadband access rate of less than 80 percent. That means that about one in five people do not have a broadband subscription within their home.

When you peel back the layers on Mississippi, seven counties have a broadband access rate of 60 percent or less. Less than half of residents in seventeen counties have access to a plan with speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps. What’s more, these are some of the pockets of the state where labor force participation rates are at their lowest and unemployment rates are at their highest.

According to the Pew Research Center, income is the sole differentiator in how various communities use the internet. Fourteen percent of adults living in households earning less than $30,000 a year do not use the internet. That same figure is one percent for adults earning $75,000 per year. Pew Research found that there are no major statistical differences in internet usage between gender, race, ethnicity, or urban and rural America.

So, in this specific state – Mississippi – with these specific access and economic challenges, could BEAD effectively reach the residents who are most in need?

Sally Doty, Director of the Broadband Expansion and Accessibility Office in Mississippi, is all too familiar with the challenges facing the state. “[We have a lot of] high poverty areas and low-income areas. A subscription to a high-speed internet connection is just something that is not affordable.”

But since CARES Act funding was passed in 2020, Mississippi appropriated $75 million dollars to work towards significant broadband buildouts in rural, northern pockets of the state. That funding provided vital financial resources for rural electrical co-ops to build in some of the most unserved communities in the state. Without the subsidy, the economics of building broadband were too daunting.

“Broadband deployment in this country has been market-driven, with private sector telephone and cable companies investing in areas that provide higher rates of return,” said Kathryn de Wit, Project Director for the Broadband Access Initiative with the Pew Charitable Trusts. “Profit and return are important to the long-term operation of networks, even for ISPs receiving government subsidies. Unfortunately, there have been too few policy requirements ensuring that networks built with those subsidies are reaching low-income households.”

Such is the never-ending loop: Small, rural communities have less dense populations. They’re expensive to reach, so ISPs don’t build out services. That’s where the promise of BEAD comes in and may potentially change that trajectory. “The funding requires that you go to [unserved or] underserved locations first… We’re focused on finding the right service mix for these unserved areas,” notes Doty.

Specifically, Doty has her eyes on the southwestern region of the state along with the famed Mississippi Delta, which has been experiencing population declines in recent years. Both of these areas are outliers when it comes to mapped poverty and access metrics. With better broadband, Doty feels that there is a higher likelihood that residents would stay in the region. “Our hope is that we have a Delta Renaissance. It’s an incredible agricultural area [and] connectivity [would help] with sensors in the fields, monitoring soil temperature… [It will] hopefully encourage more families to stay in the business [or] maybe have remote jobs.”

Other considerations that come into play across Mississippi are natural disasters, like tropical storms and hurricanes. Operations and maintenance roles will be vital to keep fresh BEAD broadband infrastructure safe and functioning.

But here’s the catch: So many rural communities could benefit from economic opportunities that BEAD will provide. After all, the goal of BEAD is to prompt states to target unserved households first and foremost. But with only so big of a labor pool with so many skills, will ISPs have to outsource roles to other states? Right now, the onus is on the states to outline how they’re going to bridge labor gaps via the five-year plans they’re required to develop as a condition for receiving BEAD funding.

For Doty, this question of workforce development is top-of-mind. “Accelerate Mississippi is [helping us with] workforce development issues… Providing the workforce to build this out, [and] maintain it is going to be so important for the future.”

Doty predicts that some roles will have to be outsourced in the initial phase of BEAD projects, but the goal is to get as many Mississippians into the industry as possible. The state has fifteen community colleges that can connect people to training. Many colleges already have programs for splicing and linemen training, which will help with fiber construction and aerial projects, respectively. There are also talks of rolling out apprenticeship programs in high school to tap into students who may be ready to work by next year.

If a high-school or college-aged student enters a training program in the next year and forges a career in the Mississippi telecommunications industry, their median salary would hover around $60,370 annually—about $12,000 more than the median salary in the state today.

Across the country, de Wit has also taken note of states in the midst of figuring out how they’re going to provide necessary training to workers in need. “[I’ve seen] early workforce planning efforts from states like Ohio, Vermont, and Louisiana… Including public-private partnerships and offering childcare to those receiving job training… [The goal is] to remove barriers that stand in the way of folks joining this growing workforce and building lucrative careers,” says de Wit.

Mississippi is well-known for some statewide challenges, but Doty is confident that BEAD can seriously change the long-term trajectory for thousands of families. “There’s so many metrics in Mississippi that are difficult for us, [but expanded broadband access] is going to allow [for] increases in educational attainment, in our health outcomes, with remote work… We hope our labor participation rate will increase.”

“High-speed internet is essential to allow Mississippians to participate in a more modern economy,” Doty concluded. “We have a sense of urgency to get service out for people that remain unserved or underserved.”