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Missouri ranks in the bottom one-third of all states in broadband internet access and in the bottom 1/10th in terms of speed.
“This is unacceptable,” said Missouri State Representative for 5th District Louis Riggs. “The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt the inadequacies of our broadband infrastructure to provide rural Missourians with telehealth resources (1500 percent increase across the state), online education (especially when schools were locked down), business applica-tions (during the worst of the pandemic, as much as 40-50 percent of all available bandwidth was being soaked up by Netflix and YouTube).”
At the Federal level, Elon Musk and his satellites are starting to soak up Federal dollars for technology that is still in “beta” phase and will likely never deliver 1 gig from low-orbiting satellites.
Riggs said that is the bad news.
Representative Riggs said the good news is a number of counties, notably Shelby, took action to bridge the “digital divide” using CARES Act funding—and plan to do so again with ARPA funds coming down from the Federal government.
“I have started referring to the Shelby County Commissioners as “rock stars” for getting engaged in this process to bring Shelby County into the 21stcentury,” Riggs added. “Several rural counties have taken similar steps with these funds, which will only help our situation in rural Missouri, where two percent of the population remains stuck with dial-up.”
Riggs is hopeful much more good news is on the way from Jefferson City, in particular, with Federal funds going to the State Broadband Fund, which is far more user friendly than any programs offered by the Federal government.
State Broadband funds go to co-ops and regional telecoms who have been in our area for generations and who did not kick us to the curb a decade ago by proclaiming that ‘there is no money to be made in rural Missouri.’
To date, Riggs has been working on obtaining an appropriation of $250 million to the State Broadband Fund, which to this point has distributed funds all across Missouri, using matching funds as small as $25,000 to provide last-mile access in some of the most rural places in Missouri.
He has met with the House Budget Chair, Federal Funds Subcommittee Chair, the Secretary of State, and the State Broadband Director to state the case in favor of keeping these Federal funds in the State Broadband Fund, where they will do the most good for the most rural Missourians.
Riggs has been engaged with officials in St. Louis regarding Federal funds that are set to be distributed to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s), which includes Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis and Lincoln University in Jefferson City. Those funds can be distributed within a 15-mile radius, which would help end the broadband deserts that also exist in City of St. Louis and North St. Louis County.
“Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft is working on a proposal for a pilot program to use the more than 340 public libraries located in every county across Missouri as job centers and to provide dedicated space for telehealth services,” Riggs continued, “That type of ‘outside the box’ thinking will help meet rural Missourians at the level of their needs in their own communities by using existing facilities.”
Riggs said if Missouri is able to add $250 million to the State Broadband Fund, the investment itself would be double that amount, since the State fund provides matching grants to entities that are deploying broadband internet first to unserved and then to underserved Missourians (anything less than 25/3 broadband service is considered under-served, which includes nearly 1 million Missourians).
By comparison, Iowa is looking at $150 million, Kentucky is looking at $300 million and Illinois has been looking at $400 million. North Carolina recently announced that it is looking at providing $1.2 billion toward broadband, nearly five times as much as we are asking for in Missouri.
“Considering the size of our state and the depth of our unmet needs, $250 million is not asking for too much and I will work night and day to keep that level of funding on the front burner in 2021,” Riggs said.
“Please say a prayer that we are able to make a quantum leap forward with broadband deployment in 2021. We have waited more than long enough to join the rest of Missouri in the 21st century.”