The Cole County Commission had been leaning to spend a large part of the county's federal COVID-19 relief money on improving rural broadband. However, the commissioners learned Tuesday there is already federal money available for rural broadband projects.
Roger Kloeppel, chief executive officer of Three Rivers Electric Cooperative, told commissioners they have learned the Federal Communications Commission already has put money into rural broadband projects in Cole County thanks to its Connect America Fund Two in 2018 and the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. The funds were made available last year.
"It takes a while for the FCC to sort things out, to actually give approval and start giving funding to organizations," Kloeppel said.
Three Rivers currently does not offer broadband but had explored providing the service.
"To make the determination that offering broadband service didn't make sense for us, we learned a lot about broadband," he said. "We also found there is a lot of public information that you would be completely unaware of regarding broadband service."
Two organizations did get FCC funding.
One was Co-Mo Electric Cooperative, which offers fiberoptic broadband services with its Co-Mo Connect product. The other was Wisper Wireless, an internet provider offering service in Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Indiana and Illinois.
The organizations have an obligation to provide service to 40 percent of the area they bid within three years after they receive final FCC approval, Kloeppel explained.
According to a map Kloeppel provided, Wisper would be providing service in much of eastern and southern Cole County, which would include communities such as Eugene and Taos, and on the west side of the county around Lohman. Co-Mo would be on the west side serving areas around Centertown.
"In Wisper's case, they received final approval in February 2020; so according to the FCC, by February 2023, they should have their service up," he said.
One of the highlighted areas American Rescue Plan funds can be used for is broadband infrastructure, and Kloeppel said he knew all counties have more infrastructure needs than just broadband.
"I just wanted to make the commission aware that this is out there, and if you are looking at using ARP funding for rural broadband, you ought to at least take a look at who is receiving some money and are they going to fulfill their obligation," he said. "I think you should also look to see if the product they're offering is able to meet the needs of Cole County."
He added COVID-19 did slow down Wisper in its implementation efforts, but it has started to provide wireless service in Osage County. He said Three Rivers plans to meet this week with Wisper officials about their plans to expand.
"We think with Wisper starting to make a presence in the area, in maybe a month or two, we should know more about their product and how satisfied people are with it," Kloeppel said. "I want to make clear, I fully support Co-Mo and Callaway Electric Cooperative with their broadband subsidiary, Callabyte. I know they both can deliver, but I also know it can be very expensive. As you get out into the rural areas, it's harder to justify fiber to the home service."
Three Rivers provides electrical power to many parts of Cole County and has worked with Callaway Electric on its Callabyte project in Wardsville.
"To do fiber to the home, you get on our poles to put the fiber on there, and we have said we will strengthen those poles if that was the way Callaway needed to go," Kloeppel said. "If I were in your shoes, I would want to look at all the players in this game."