Sally Doty and Mississippi BEAM expand broadband access across the Magnolia State  Thumbnail Image

Sally Doty and Mississippi BEAM expand broadband access across the Magnolia State

Bringing reliable, high-speed Internet access to every Mississippian has been at the heart of BEAM’s mission since its formation in 2019, including its capital fund project to create a grant program to successfully connect more than 30,000 unserved locations in the state. 

For a substantial portion of her career, Sally Doty has been in public service to the people of Mississippi. Her work as director of Broadband Expansion and Accessibility in Mississippi, the state’s newly formed broadband office, aims to tackle one of the state’s greatest challenges: access to robust, affordable, high-speed broadband. 

A former Mississippi state senator, Doty became familiar with broadband issues while chairing the energy committee in 2019 when Mississippi lifted its ban on electric cooperatives providing broadband service. A year later, Governor Tate Reeves appointed Doty to serve as the executive director of the Mississippi Public Utilities Staff, an independent agency that provides recommendations to the elected Mississippi Public Service Commission. 

That same year, Mississippi received $75 million in CARES Act funding with a bulk of the funds supporting partnerships with electric cooperatives to expand broadband access.  

During the 2022 legislative session, Mississippi passed HB 1029 establishing a broadband office in the state. Doty was tapped in July as its first executive director. 

"We've been operating more similar to dog years than human years,” Doty said. “We’ve done about seven years worth of work in a period of nine months.” 

BEAM celebrates its first-year anniversary on July 1 and the organization is continuing to look forward whether it’s in preparing awards for grant recipients or drafting their five-year plan to the NTIA. 

For Kyle Brown, the agency’s deputy director, BEAM’s future is most likely to be as unpredictable and exciting as the present. 

I always tell people that at BEAM, every day is something different,” Brown said. “One minute you can be working on the 5-year plan for BEAD, and the next, you’re on a call trying to help a smaller ISP find access to capital and then approving reimbursement requests for our BIP grant and you then notice it is only 10:15 in the morning.” 

BEAM’s achievements in the state are numerous. They include awarding $32 million in grants that were transferred from the Mississippi Public Utilities staff and successfully applying for three grants. The first, a digital equity grant, would allow for the state to provide educational and accessibility resources to those with little exposure to broadband. The second, a BEAD planning grant, allowed for the agency to successfully award BEAD grants to participating partners. The third being the agency’s capital project funding with its award amount announced on June 30th and being funded through the U.S. Treasury Department. 

BEAM, Doty says, plans to utilize the Capital Project Funding to support a competitive grant program to expand access to the state’s 300,000 unserved locations. Applications for the program will close on August 17 with awards being announced later this year. 
“Our application portal for the capital project fund grant is very intuitive, easy-to-understand and has many tools and resources that make it easy to use and apply,” Doty said. 

A crucial part of the team’s success, Doty says, came from the agency’s partnership with Ready has crafted a performance test and survey for Mississippians to test and report their internet quality. This allows for state officials to make data-driven decisions and validate ISP claims with on-the-ground evidence. Ready has also guided the state through a map challenge, a process for those interested in applying for grants but have locations that they believe should or should not be eligible for funds.

“Ready has been a great partner, beyond mapping,” Doty said. “Whether it’s the knowledgeable staff, innovative thinking or the access, it’s always the best and has paid off for Mississippi. They always come down when we ask them even though it’s hot.” 

Mapping, Doty says, remains incredibly important as the FCC’s map often overestimates the amount of access that states. 

“Mississippi, according to the FCC’s map, for instance, is entirely covered with adequate broadband access and we know that’s not the case,” Doty said. “Our partnership with Ready and through the use of the data that we’ve gathered has allowed us to ensure that we’re meeting those that are unserved first and not overbuilding in a few areas.” 

BEAM’s work involves monitoring and supporting the success of the grant awardees throughout the construction and implementation phase.

This often means coordinating with other agencies, such as a project that needed to hire an archaeologist as the site ran through the Trail of Tears for Natives being removed from Alabama and Mississippi to Oklahoma. Another project required 300 easements in order to properly bury the fiber underground. 

“As an office, we have completed 22 community engagement meetings across the state along with 31 other meetings and events, such as Rotary Club meetings, groundbreaking ceremonies for broadband projects and meetings and with county supervisors and more than 20 meetings regarding digital skills and accessibility,” Ashley Johnson, BEAM’s community engagement manager said. “We have done all of this in preparation of BEAD and for BEAM to know the concerns of Mississippians in all corners of the state and make sure those concerns can be addressed as BEAD plans are being made.” 

Traveling across the state visiting these projects has given a first-hand glimpse at the benefits of expanded access, Doty says. Notable examples include the young couple able to relocate to Mississippi closer to their parents while maintaining their remote work jobs, a convenience store clerk able to accept non-cash payments, and a Spanish teacher able to cover more than twice the amount of material per class session. 
This is especially meaningful for the Mississippi Delta, an agricultural hub in the state with poverty rates double the national average, where expanded broadband access could allow for greater economic opportunity and advancement in the agriculture business. 

“We are very much focused on providing service to the Mississippi Delta,” Doty said. Broadband in the Delta would mean slowing the trend of population decline and allowing for many of the region’s farmers to take advantage of precision agriculture and other innovations that could allow for economic growth.” 

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