Upilink receives $5.3 million National Telecommunications Information Administrative grant

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    By Josh Troy 

    Clarksdale Advocate 

    A groundbreaking was held on Wednesday morning in celebration of the local internet provider, Uplink, receiving a $5.3 million National Telecommunications Information Administration grant for the Broadband Infrastructure Program. The Coahoma County Board of Supervisors provided a 10% match for the grant using American Rescue Plan Act funds. The $5.3 million will go towards building fiber-optic broadband infrastructure in the majority of Coahoma County.

    Uplink’s CEO, Brian Smith, announced that 103 miles of fiber-optic cable will be built, covering Lula, Coahoma, Jonestown, Friars Point, Rena Lara, and the Viney Ridge community. He expects that approximately 4,551 homes and businesses in the area will benefit from this fiber-optic connectivity.

    Smith expressed his excitement, stating, “This is exciting for us. We’ve been waiting for this for a while, and now we’re here.” He extended his appreciation to Sally Doty, the current director of the new state Broadband office and a former Mississippi Public Utilities employee and state senator, as well as the Coahoma County Board of Supervisors for their support in providing the match for the grant. Smith believes that without their contributions, Uplink wouldn’t have reached this milestone.

    Uplink was founded in 2012 by individuals living in rural Coahoma County who were seeking internet connectivity options. Initially, the focus was on providing internet connection to homes, but it soon expanded through the addition of more towers. Smith, who became the CEO in 2016, mentioned that Uplink’s customer base has grown steadily, estimating 150 customers in January 2017 and now reaching 999 customers as of Wednesday.

    Doty shared her experience with Uplink, recalling how the company approached the Mississippi Public Utilities for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds during the pandemic. Despite competing with larger corporations, Doty noticed Uplink’s expertise and granted them approximately $100,000. She visited Coahoma County the following spring to ensure the funds were utilized properly and confirmed that it was a worthwhile investment.

    Encouraged by Smith and Governor Tate Reeves, Doty applied for a $5.3 million National Telecommunications Information Administration grant for the State of Mississippi, which Uplink is now receiving to deploy broadband infrastructure in Coahoma County. Doty emphasized the commitment of the Coahoma County Board of Supervisors in providing the match for the grant, highlighting their understanding of the importance of high-speed fiber-optic broadband for the majority of the county.

    During the groundbreaking event, County Administrator Kim Seals, Board President and District 4 Supervisor Johnny Newson, and District 1 Supervisor Paul Pearson were present. Newson initially had reservations about Uplink’s plans but became convinced after discussing them with Uplink representatives, recognizing the potential benefits for Coahoma County. He also inquired about ensuring equal internet access across the county, to which Smith mentioned a USDA ReConnect grant that would cover areas such as Highway 322 and Chuck Pollard Road.

    Doty stressed the significance of having fiber-optic broadband available to most of Coahoma County, describing it as an amazing achievement. Newson expressed his belief that increased internet access would benefit all age groups, particularly in education, and thanked Doty for her efforts.

    Angelique Lee, the director of digital skills and accessibility at the Broadband office, and Uplink’s Chief Operating Officer Scott Litwiller discussed their plans for the future. Lee emphasized their goal of providing device and digital skills training to every Mississippian. They have established partnerships with all community colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and public universities to develop a comprehensive workforce development program. This initiative aims to train and equip local talent to meet the growing demand for broadband-related jobs as they expand their broadband infrastructure across the state.

    Litwiller expressed their commitment to Coahoma County and their focus on serving the local community. He stated, “We started by trying to provide service to local people, and we intend to continue doing so. We strive for excellence through our service, and our dedication to customer service is a major factor that attracts many people to us. We are fully committed to Coahoma County, as it is our home. Our goal is to bring fiber-optic broadband to every home in Coahoma County, if it is feasible.”

    By prioritizing local talent and maintaining a strong focus on customer service, Uplink aims to ensure that the people of Coahoma County receive reliable and high-quality broadband services.

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