Gilich seeing his dream of super high-speed internet realized

Biloxi Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich made ultra-fast internet one of his campaign pledges last year and on Friday he was joined by other Coast mayors to say the idea is starting to move from dream to reality.

Instead of taxpayer money for the first investment, Coast Electric is spending about $2 million to bury more than 100 miles of fiber optic cable from Hancock County to Biloxi.

“We think it’s going to be very affordable and good for the economy and quality of life of all our members,” Coast Electric Power Association President Robert Occhi said during a press conference Friday at Biloxi City Hall. Coast Electric is a cooperative owned by the ratepayers.

Crews started three months ago laying cable and work is 95 percent complete in the first section from Interstate 59 in Pearl River County to Mississippi 603 near Kiln. The network will continue from there across the Coast Electric service area to Biloxi and south to Bay St. Louis.

Eventually, the Gulf Coast Broadband Initiative plan is to build a fiber ring encircling the three Coast counties and make super high-speed internet available and affordable to businesses and residents in the cities and rural areas.

Gilich and Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes teamed up a year ago to pursue a minimum of 1-Gig Internet connectivity and Hewes said it is the epitome of his “One Coast” initiative. Now 12 of 15 municipalities in South Mississippi have joined the Broadband Initiative, with just Moss Point, Pascagoula and Jackson County not part of the group.

Diamondhead Mayor Thomas Schafer joined Gilich and Hewes on Friday and said the broadband holds great promise for his city and nearby Stennis Space Center.

Occhi said Coast Electric began investing in broadband for its own needs.

“Initially we just needed more bandwidth,” he said, particularly for automated meter reading.

Medical facilities, schools and industry also will benefit from the service, he said, and Coast Electric already supplies enhanced internet to industrial plants at Port Bienville Industrial Park.

“They’re always clamoring for more internet capacity,” he said.

Where decades ago electric service and then television added to the quality of life, Roger Wilder of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation said, "Today we are speaking about ultra high-speed internet."

He is working to get investors to fund additional broadband infrastructure.

"This helps to connect to the world, not just to connect locally," said Jon Gifford, a senior vice president of InLine, an internet service provider.

Although South Mississippi theoretically could save time by installing fiber optic above ground, “south of Hattiesburg we put in the the ground to protect if from a storm,” he said.

Gov. Phil Bryant has pledged $15 million of BP Restore Act money to help bring broadband to the Coast and Gilich said the service must be affordable and available everywhere.

“All students in every school should be able to do homework on affordable ultra high-speed internet service in order to compete with their peers around the world,” he said.