Missouri Lawmakers Discuss Roadblocks, Potential for Rural Broadband

State and local leaders discussed the need for fast, reliable Internet service throughout rural areas, as well as some of the challenges keeping connectivity out of reach.

by Ray Scherer, St. Joseph News-Press / February 5, 2018
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(TNS) — PLATTSBURG, Mo. — The need for rural broadband services in Missouri was highlighted Saturday during a visit to Clinton County by Sen. Roy Blunt.

The state's senior senator, a Republican, stopped by the USDA Farm Service Center on the west side of Plattsburg. His purpose was to seek updates on community battles in Northwest Missouri to secure broadband for schools, medical facilities, small businesses and other facilities.

Fresh reports from the nation's capital show that there is a more persistent push for broadband, including a layout of addressing the areas that most need the service and attempts to secure funding.

Blunt told a large crowd that he has been touring the region, holding a series of roundtable discussions. He said partners have been meeting regularly to consider a plan of attack in erasing the rural broadband deficit. The Missouri Farm Bureau, along with USDA's Farm Service Agency and Rural Development office, are among the partners.

Richard Fordyce, the state's current Farm Service director and former Missouri agriculture director, said 4-H youth members are even talking about broadband for their communities.

"It's on everyone's mind," Fordyce said. "I know we have the right people to do it. We're going to be able to compete with anybody."

Blake Hurst, president of the state's Farm Bureau, said it's been difficult to determine which areas are in the direst situations with their lack of internet connections. But he said that hasn't stopped proponents from spreading the gospel of broadband and attempting to pinpoint the greatest vacuums.

"We're seeing lots of movement across the country," Hurst said. "We need to know the situation a little bit better."

Rep. Delus Johnson, R-St. Joseph, has authored a bill in the Missouri House of Representatives that would establish a state fund for the expansion of rural broadband. He attended Blunt's visit along with state representatives and fellow Republicans Jim Neely of Cameron and J. Eggleston of Maysville.

Johnson said his proposal is designed to mirror federal legislation, which carries requirements mandated by the Federal Communications Commission.

Blunt agreed with that endeavor.

"Somehow, we have got to get better," he said, adding that new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai "really gets this" need for extending broadband to all areas of the nation. "I believe we have an open door at the FCC."

Mayors and officials with the region's rural electric cooperative network also attended. Plattsburg Mayor Dave Schauer expressed frustration at slow progress at bringing the internet to the city.

"It's very difficult for us to get it," he told Blunt.

Yet Gower Mayor Chip Holman spoke of recent broadband gains in his city.

"Now half of the city of Gower is covered" thanks to work by United Fiber, he said.

Others told Blunt accessible internet is crucial for students at all levels.

Missouri ranks near the bottom of all states in terms of broadband coverage.

"That's absolutely, totally unacceptable," the senator said.

Nonetheless, Blunt offered up optimism that the state will become more competitive in its services in the years ahead -- due in part to the work done by rural electric cooperatives.

©2018 the St. Joseph News-Press (St. Joseph, Mo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.