Opinion: Missouri Needs Rural Broadband Expansion Everywhere

Slow, unreliable Internet access has long since gone from being simply a rural inconvenience to an economic and social impediment for many small communities and isolated county residents who live there.

by Allen Fennewald, Columbia Tribune / November 8, 2019
Rural Illinois Shutterstock/Ian Dikhtiar

(TNS) — The need for better rural internet service has been a problem since we surpassed the capabilities of dialup more than a decade ago. Slow, unreliable internet access has long since gone from a rural inconvenience to an economic and social impediment of many small communities and isolated county residents.

And yet Missouri, with its more than 2 million rural county residents, is among the states with the least broadband access.

Rural residents require decent internet service whether they are operating a business, trying to keep up with their children's progress in school or read the latest local news coverage. We've had potential readers tell me they can't take advantage of a digital subscription because their internet is too slow and spotty to make it worthwhile. The digital age is leaving behind these citizens attempting to retain the traditions of country living while many of their neighbors flock to the cities.

If we want small-town America to thrive in the foreseeable future, high-speed internet access to all rural residents — along with other necessary infrastructural updates — is a fundamental step.

But building broadband systems is expensive, which makes it less likely that private providers will make investments in areas where they will only gain a relative handful of customers.

High-speed satellite and fixed wireless internet isn't a viable option for many because service can be blocked by things like trees, hills or storms.

The current strategy is for the government to contribute grants to businesses and other entities expanding high-speed internet access.

The Federal Communications Commission granted two central Missouri internet providers operated by electric cooperatives $24.1 million in federal funding to expand broadband offerings to almost 10,000 homes and businesses. The FCC also allocated nearly $5.5 million to expand broadband access to 1,304 locations serviced by Co-Mo Connect in Cooper County. Co-Mo Electric Cooperative in Tipton received $21.97 million to expand its CoMo Connect service to 8,356 new customers. Callaway Electric Cooperative in Fulton received $2.17 million to bring service to 1,485 customers. Governor Mike Parson signed the Missouri Broadband Grant Program into law this summer, slating $5 million dollars for fiscal year 2020 to match investments in rural broadband.

But is development occurring fast enough in all the rural areas that need it? The Missouri Department of Economic Development states almost 20% of Missourians – more than 1.2 million residents – do not have access to high-speed internet. Much of rural Audrain, Howard and Randolph counties only have access to one broadband provider, according to the FCC.

High-speed internet access is an issue for all rural Americans and should be addressed on the federal level as well. Congress has been presented options to targetedly improve the nation's internet infrastructure from coast to coast, if the bills can make their way through the legislature.

The Broadband (Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability) DATA Act, cosponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt, and the Broadband Data Improvement Act intend to target underserved areas by standardizing how broadband access is recorded so the FCC can determine if existing area providers can meet the needs of residents.

The Reprioritizing Unserved Rural Areas and Locations (RURAL) Broadband Act would amend the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 to help coordinate the efforts of the USDA's Rural Utilities Service with the FCC and assure appropriate funding to provide retail fixed broadband service in areas with a single provider, like those rural areas of our region.

High-speed internet improvement should be a major priority for all elected officials, especially those who represent rural areas. Encourage your representative to be a part of a solution that targets the most underserved rural residents. Blunt has cosponsored the DATA Act, but Sen. Josh Hawley and Rep. Vicky Hartzler aren't on the record sponsoring any bills intended to advance rural broadband access.

If so much of American life is moving online — from job applications to business management to shopping for hard-to-find items — then rural residents deserve equal access to these opportunities, or perhaps at least a hefty tax break for their lost potential earnings and extra trouble participating in the increasingly necessary online communities.

©2019 Columbia Daily Tribune, Mo. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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