Last Sunday’s Sun Herald included a guest forum by our good friend Michael Watson, the state senator from Pascagoula. The item was titled “BP money should fill real needs.”
Although the name of the author was different this time, the subject and the message was essentially the same as one published in this newspaper almost a year ago. That article was authored by David Williams, the head of the reassuringly titled Taxpayers Protection Alliance. In the most recent article, Watson referenced the TPA, describing it as a “watchdog group.” The reality is that TPA is an aggressive advocate for powerful telecom interests.
Watson began by misstating Biloxi finances, which is understandable given that he lives three cities away and missed all our budget hearings. To set the record straight, Biloxi did not and does not have a shortfall. Neither did Biloxi cut $1 million from the police and fire departments. Watson also suggested that Biloxi should get its finances in order before using BP settlement money to help build a fiber optic ring around the Coast.
While we appreciate the senator’s concern, let me assure him what Biloxi residents already know — that Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich and the Biloxi City Council have firm command of our budget. Gilich has done a remarkable job of lowering our debt, improving our services and supporting our employees. Our police and fire departments are the most well-equipped and trained in the state, and our fire department has the best rating.
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Moreover, Gilich has taken a strong leadership role in advocating for smart use of all BP settlement money. He worked with all 15 local governments and most of our local legislators to develop a plan that calls for the BP economic damages settlement money to be dedicated to a trust fund, with the proceeds used to fund transformational economic development projects.
Watson’s article is a misrepresentation of the facts that obscures the logic behind the Gulf Coast Broadband Initiative, which is to ensure timely, universal and affordable delivery of a minimum 1-gig internet connectivity across the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Incidentally, 12 of the 15 local governments on the Coast are GCBI members.
One of the most compelling aspects of the plan is that it would encourage a more timely delivery of the internet speeds in this area, enabling us to start to catch up with our competitors. Watson suggests that government should sit by and wait for private industry to deliver us the highest quality connectivity. That is the same type of thinking that has resulted in consumers paying painfully high cable bills for decades of decreasing services.
The reality is that no current ISP on the Coast offers dedicated 1-gig download and upload (symmetrical) at an affordable price.
The GCBI plan makes sense, says Mississippi’s own C Spire. The company’s senior vice president for strategic relations, Eric Graham, wrote, “C Spire believes the Mississippi Gulf Coast region is underserved with next-generation broadband and that the solution is an advanced fiber network spanning the three coastal counties which would provide the foundation for all current and future broadband needs in the region. The Gulf Coast Broadband [Initiative], as we understand its design and purpose, is the type of entity that C Spire envisions under the scenario in which a Coast-based nonprofit entity is the owner of the regional fiber network.”
Oh, and the plan is already working. Because of the GCBI push, Coast Electric recently contracted with internet service provider InLine to establish more than 150 miles of a new fiber network that could provide between one-third and one-half of the fiber ring backbone. This project “... is bringing affordable broadband to rural and urban areas that have lacked competition and true choices for internet and broadband services for far too long,” said InLine executives. “InLine is working with local, state and federal leaders such as Biloxi’s Mayor Gilich and the GCBI to develop strategies and network designs that meet the critical community needs for improved services. By partnering with InLine, Coast Electric is now able to get the communication services required to operate, manage and secure their electric service grid at a fraction of the cost.”
Yes, Watson. It makes sense. And it’s already working.
F. Cliff Kirkland is the chief of civic innovation and development for the city of Biloxi.