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State Senate discusses rural broadband access

State Senate discusses rural broadband access

February 8th, 2018 by Philip Joens in Missouri News

A bill that could jump-start efforts to expand rural broadband access was brought before a state Senate panel Wednesday afternoon.

State Sen. Dan Hegeman, R-Maryville, introduced a bill that could establish a fund to expand broadband internet services to rural parts of Missouri.

Members of the telecom industry, though, said the state will need to choose whether it wants to create a network with fast speeds over a small area or create a network with slow speeds over a broad area.

Hegeman's bill would establish a fund using state appropriations, private donations or other grants to disburse money to communities seeking to expand broadband internet services. The Missouri Department of Economic Development would review grant applications. Grants would not exceed $150,000, and would not be given to groups with regions including counties, or portions of other states or with operating budgets of more than $250,000.

Hegeman said after the hearing that many groups in the state want to expand rural broadband access. This would be a way to start bigger plans to expand broadband access to more parts of the state.

"There's been a lot of discussion this summer," Hegeman said. "It's just kind of the kick-start of it."

Hegeman said he knows people in his part of Northwest Missouri who have lost their access to dial-up internet service. The Missouri Farm Bureau and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt are seeking federal money to fund projects to expand rural broadband access, Hegeman said.

To spearhead the effort, Hegeman plans to work with his Northwest Missouri colleague, state Rep. Delus Johnson, R-St. Joseph, who introduced a House version of the same bill. A House committee heard testimony on Johnson's bill Wednesday.

Still, supporters of the fund acknowledged it will take massive amounts of money to accomplish anything.

Brent Stewart, a lobbyist with the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives, told the committee any worthwhile systems will have high upfront costs and need to solve problems of financial viability issues. Funding and logistical challenges of building the network will be hurdles, Stewart said.

"While we're not going to have a lot of money, it's a step in the right direction," Stewart said of the fund.

BJ Tanksley, a lobbyist with the Missouri Farm Bureau, told the committee Missouri should model its fund after a similar program the state of Minnesota started in 2016.

"(Minnesota) didn't just jump in and pour a lot of money into the issue," Tanksley said. "They saw the successes they were having and grew from there."

A representative of the Missouri Cattleman's Association also spoke in favor of the bill.

Doug Galloway, director of governmental affairs for CenturyLink, did not take a position on the bill. Galloway said, though, all rural states are fighting to expand broadband service to rural areas.

"If (broadband internet) was going to go out to rural areas easily, we probably would've accomplished that by now," Galloway said.

Still, Galloway said because of funding limitations, the state may need to initially prioritize broader coverage or fast speeds in rural areas. Galloway said creating a network with relatively slow speeds over a broader geographic area would allow broadband internet to reach more customers. Updates to the network, including upgrades to speed, could then be made later.

"I'm not sure you're going to get both unless you have lots of money," Galloway said. "Something is better than nothing."

Gov. Eric Greitens announced plans in January for the Missouri Department of Economic Development to hire a person to lead efforts to expand broadband internet access across the state.

Twenty percent of Missourians — 1.5 million people — lack access to internet service with a download speed of at least 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of at least 3 megabits per second, according to a January news release from Greitens' office. Most of those residents live in rural areas.

Hegeman said it's likely that if this fund is created, the person in this new position will work with the fund.

Have a question about this article? Have something to add? Email reporter Philip Joens at pjoens@newstribune.com.