By Tom Lee
“Avalon’s a small town, have no great big range”
—Mississippi John Hurt, “Avalon Blues”
The eight lanes of Interstate 55 soon will sling us round Memphis, south through evergreen tunnels, narrowing to the new asphalt of Route 430 and the macadam of County Road 235, which surrenders to the dirt road that carries us to Christmas.
It is December, and time to return to Carroll County, Mississippi. The funneling effect is real, and some of it by choice. We choose the cocoon of familial embrace, of holiday groaning boards, and the friendly croquet on the hibernating crabgrass of the front yard, where a yawning sinkhole threatens the turn for home.
But we do not choose it all. For that, we have Mississippi's telecommunications companies and politicians to thank. Carroll County, population 10,255 and falling, rests half on the billiard-table surface of the Mississippi Delta and half on rolling pine scrub, is one of the least-connected communities in America's 49th least-connected state.
In the community of Black Hawk, where my family gathers on the dirt road, there is no cable, no DSL, no high-speed internet. Never has been. My 94-year-old father-in-law uses the same Earthlink dialup connection he bought in the ’90s. Neither is there mobile service capable of penetrating his brick home.
Now, to be fair, if you stand in the secret spot in the gravel drive and lift your iPhone to the sky in favoring winds, you may download a spate of texts and emails. Provided all you want to do for the holidays is play scarecrow, you're good, but I must warn you it is damned hard to type with arms outstretched toward the skies. Using your smartphone's connected apps is impossible.
It is tempting to think, because the one-room schoolhouse still stands across the road from the clapboard Methodist church, that nothing ever changes in Black Hawk, but that is not true. The Methodist church is now United, the schoolhouse is a museum piece, and there wasn't always an information economy.
In the 1920s, when my in-laws were born to Carroll County shopkeepers, Black Hawk was home to subsistence farmers, small-parcel landowners, bankers, physicians, and a movie house. There were the arts, as well. Along with pioneering fiddler Willie Narmour, the great Mississippi John Hurt, born and raised in Carroll County's northwest corner, was recording such blues classics as his own "Avalon Blues" and the definitive versions of "Make Me a Pallet," "Corrina, Corrina," and "Stagger Lee." Newspapers and AM radio brought news and entertainment.
When interstate markets opened and small farms gave way to multinational land holdings, communities like Black Hawk emptied out. But the ’90s also brought new infrastructure and new, albeit different, opportunity. Newly four-laned U.S. 82 stitched the county's growing population centers of Carrollton and Winona to the wealthier communities on Mississippi's borders and beyond. With accessible markets for goods, including building supplies, houses were built.
According to the U.S. Census, 42 percent of all houses in Carroll County went up between 1990 and 2010. When the Dollar General and the barbecue joint opened across Highway 17 from one another in 2009, you'd have thought it was Silicon Valley for all the excitement. But then, just when the real Silicon Valley got going, Carroll County and all the other Carroll Counties across the South stopped.
The transformation was incredible. In 1999, the four largest companies in the world sold cars, groceries, and oil. Today, the four largest companies sell iPhones, internet ads, data, and software. In 1999, only 41 percent of Americans used the internet at all. A mere six years later, broadband users surpassed dialup users.
Where has this change left Carroll County? Only 18 percent of Carroll County's population has access to broadband at speeds up to 25 mbps, the minimum to stream video and download and upload large files, according to BroadbandNow. Want to sell over the internet, you have to do it elsewhere? Want to subscribe to Netflix? You have to do it elsewhere. Want to communicate with others? You have to do it elsewhere. And so, growth in Carroll County has stopped.
Since 2010, there have been less than 150 houses built. Since 2014, there have been six. Six houses built in three years. Across the entire county. Stopped. Dead.
The South has faced this problem before. One-hundred and fifty years ago, private interests monopolized the ways we got around: toll roads, canals, and railroads. Then, state governments and, eventually, Congress in the 1950s realized the economy of the 20th century required mobility, and the means of travel became public and open to all.
We relegated the production and distribution of electricity to the private marketplace, until we realized the market wasn't incentivized to run power lines to folks who couldn't pay enough for the power and the profit. Through the Tennessee Valley Authority and agencies like the Rural Electrification Administration and local co-ops, we said electric power as a public good, necessary for all.
And now, broadband. Just as the 20th century economy required electricity and mobility, the 21st century economy requires broadband. Relegating its access to purely private concerns means poorer, remoter communities will remain just that. The price is not measured only in dollars and cents. The hopelessness fostered in economic isolation means public schools have fewer resources, crime rates stretch law- enforcement resources to the point of breaking, and public health crises such as diabetes and the opioid epidemic needlessly claim lives.
The irony is that, today, telecoms like AT&T and Verizon are planning assaults on Southern legislatures, seeking to overturn local zoning and land-use control over the placement of cell towers, claiming municipal governments are stalling their ability to deliver newer, faster, wireless services. They say there's too much government holding them back. And, in fairness, it's too much to lay the decline of rural America at the feet of those running the telecommunications companies. They are, after all, only responding to the pressures of their shareholders and lenders. But is that not the point? The promise of the internet is that, once connected, your ability to reach the world is limited only by the size of your vision. Consider Facebook, born in 2004 and now the fourth-largest company in the world.
First, however, you have to connect. Without that, you have no great big range. You have little range at all.