On May 20, 1936, Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act, which allowed the federal government to make low-interest loans to farmers who wanted electricity brought to rural America.
The bill transformed rural America and brought light to millions of Americans giving them access to a new economy that would one day be filled with electronic gadgets.
Now, 81 years later, another power surge is changing rural Missouri as many of the same electric cooperatives created by the Rural Electrification Act bring broadband internet to their customers, giving them access to the unlimited potential of high speed internet.
"We believe this (broadband internet) is the light of the next generation," said Clint Smith, the director of administration at the Callaway Electric Cooperative in rural Callaway County.
Federal and local business leaders said the area's current broadband infrastructure continues to be updated but does not hurt economic growth. Jefferson City Public Schools officials said its students have access to more bandwidth than the district needs, but a rural school leader said a lack of bandwidth changes the way his district educates students.
A community room with free Wi-Fi sits in Callaway Electric's Fulton office. Smith said internet access can be so bad in the co-op's coverage area that Smith said people routinely drive their kids to the office and upload homework assignments to the web from their cars using the free broadband.
The co-op endured sluggish growth through the Great Recession and the years after it ended. Smith said the co-op gained about 150 customers per year but lost about 100 customers per year before last year. In 2015, the co-op invested in a pilot program in a 50-house subdivision just outside of Fulton.
About 80 percent of residents signed up for the service, which uses fiberoptic cables to provide customers with internet at speeds of 100 megabits per second, 500 megabits per second and 1 gigabyte per second. So, the co-op held another pilot program in Fulton in 2016. This year, the co-op is holding a handful of pilot projects, including one in Holts Summit, as it ramps up internet service and is presenting the co-op with its biggest growth opportunity since the beginning of the Great Recession.
"From our standpoint, we certainly see it as an economic driver and key to membership growth," Smith said. "We are looking into towns not served by us."
Even to the most tech savvy people, the definition of what constitutes broadband internet can be tough to understand. So think of it this way: Smartphones typically handle internet services that download things, like YouTube videos, at a rate of 5-12 mbps, according to Verizon Wireless. Uploads using smartphones, like photos being tweeted, generally move at speeds of 2-5 mbps.
Before 2015, the Federal Communications Commission defined broadband internet as any service that had a download speed of 4 mbps and an upload speed of just 1 mbps. In January 2015, seeing how technology changed since its creation in 1996, the commission changed the definition of broadband internet to a service that has download speeds of at least 25 mbps and an upload speed of at least 3 mbps. The FCC said in its 2015 Broadband Progress Report it changed the definition because, at that speed, multiple devices — smartphones, tablets or computers in a household — can surf the internet, and movies can also be streamed at that speed.
"For a service to be considered advanced, it must enable Americans to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics and video telecommunications," the FCC said in the report.
At the time, 53 percent of rural Americans lacked access to internet meeting that criteria, compared to 8 percent of urban residents. By the time the FCC issued the 2016 Broadband Progress Report, 39 percent of rural Americans still lacked access to broadband internet, compared to just 4 percent of urban Americans.
The FCC also said just 13 percent of rural Americans had access to more than one broadband internet provider, compared to 44 percent of urban residents. This puts rural businesses and residents at a disadvantage because fewer providers often means higher prices for consumers.
Internet providers, government officials and school leaders reached by the News Tribune all acknowledged closing the digital divide between rural and urban Americans involves many players doing many things.
In its 2015 report, the FCC said rural Americans adopt broadband at the same rate as urban consumers when broadband services exist in their area.
Closing the divide
Government, business and education leaders in Mid-Missouri all agree closing the digital divide between rural and urban Americans will take input and money from many entities. In 2012, the FCC's Connect America Fund began distributing $198 million per year over 10 years to subsidize the cost of bringing broadband services to rural Americans.
Callaway Electric serves 13,000 members in rural areas near Holts Summit, Fulton and Big Springs. On average, six people per square mile live in the co-op's coverage area. Smith declined to say how much Callaway Electric's Callabyte Technology, as the co-op named the new broadband service, will cost when it's completed in several years or how much the co-op invested so far.
Most similar systems run fiberoptic cables under electric lines, but the co-op owns most of its electric poles, so it runs fiberoptic cables on its electric lines. Because the co-op did not need to pay for the cost of digging into the ground to place each cable, it saved about three times what it would've spent by putting cables underground.
For cooperatives looking to give their customers broadband though, systems similar to Callabyte don't come cheap. Mark Boyer, the manager of marketing and technical services for the Three Rivers Electric Cooperative, said the cost discouraged his co-op from creating a broadband service.
Three Rivers Electric Cooperative serves 18,000 customers in an area that includes some parts of southern Jefferson City and rural areas near Russellville, St. Elizabeth and New Haven. Boyer said for the past two years, the co-op looked at adding broadband. A projected cost of $50 million and a timeline of eight-10 years before the completion of the system made the co-op reach the conclusion it just couldn't proceed with the project for now.
"It just wasn't something that we wanted to do," Boyer said.
Boone Electric Cooperative serves rural areas around Columbia, including areas just south of Ashland. Chris Rohlfing, manager of member services for Boone Electric, said the co-op offers a satellite internet service with upload speeds of 12 mbps and upload speeds of 3 mbps. While Boone Electric markets the service as broadband, Rohlfing acknowledged that falls below the FCC's broadband definition.
"Most of the time, we'll see uploads of about 10 mbps," Rohlfing said.
He said satellite internet, while not perfect, is an option for people looking for internet service in isolated areas that may not have other services available.
A key to growth
In 2015, the FCC said broadband can be a key to economic growth for rural and urban communities.
"The availability of sufficient broadband capability can erase the distance to high-quality health care and education, bring the world into homes and schools, drive American economic growth and improve the nation's global competitiveness," the FCC's 2015 Broadband Progress report said.
Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, said the issue is one of economics and quality of life.
"In my district, I have areas that can't get (broadband)," he said. "Being able to access news and events through the internet is as common as watching TV. It's very important people have access to it."
Luetkemeyer said he's working with President Donald Trump and other members of Congress to push key infrastructure bills that would provide additional money to incentivize companies to add rural broadband services.
He said members of both parties realize the internet is as important in farming as it is to any other business.
"(Farmers) have to have access to the internet to be able to market their products," Luetkemeyer said. "Anybody who knows anything about business knows that you need the internet to market yourself."
By and large, internet service within Jefferson City appears to be pretty good. The internet data firm Broadband Now ranked Missouri as near the bottom of its Most Connected States list at No. 42. Still, the website said 83.6 percent of Cole County, 62 percent of Callaway County and 98.5 percent of Moniteau County have access to internet speeds greater than 25 mbps. However, it also said less than 1 percent of Osage County has access to internet at those speeds.
The website said Jefferson City has access to six internet providers, including service from CenturyLink through DSL and fiberoptic cables.
CenturyLink and Mediacom made service at 1 gigabit per second available to business and residential customers in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
Randy Allen, president of the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce, said the city benefits from being Missouri's capital and having several state buildings that require high speed internet service. This incentivized providers to make high speed service available to the state and other commercial businesses faster than otherwise may have happened.
Allen said broadband coverage is pretty good in most parts of Cole County. Certain areas, like Apache Flats, have only slower speeds available; some businesses can still get by with those speeds though, he said.
"This huge need by the state of Missouri for this service is like a magnet," Allen said. "From what I understand, there is enough options available for any company to get what they need in city limits."
Allen said companies looking to locate in Jefferson City look at the city's broadband infrastructure, like they do any other utility. Manufacturing companies may need less bandwidth than a call center, but the needs will keep escalating.
"Five years from now, 10 years from now, everybody is going to need high speed," Allen said.
Internet speed and education
In 2016, the FCC also said 41 percent of schools did not meet its standard of 100 mbps per 1,000 students. At that speed, schools can effectively use cutting edge and interactive technology.
Chuck Woody, superintendent of the Osage County R-3 (Fatima) District in Westphalia, knows what it's like to not have enough bandwidth available to his students. Woody stressed the district's current inability to access the bandwidth it needs does not hinder its ability to educate its 789 students. It does, however, make learning less interactive than Woody would like.
"It causes our classrooms to be very limited in our initiatives," he said.
All standardized tests in Missouri are taken on computers. Both the district's limited number of computers in its labs and the lack of bandwidth make it hard to administer the tests. He said the system can handle about 100 students taking tests, but it changes lesson plans for other teachers. During those times, teachers coordinate to make sure they teach lessons that do not use much bandwidth.
His goal is to give every student an iPad and foster an interactive learning environment in the district. He's currently working with several groups including the nonprofit Education Superhighway to secure funding to improve the school's internet infrastructure within the next year.
In Jefferson City, the public school district already gives all elementary and middle school students iPads. This year, high school students will trade their iPads in for Google Chromebooks. Steve Bruce, school board president, said the district believes in using interactive technology to enhance education.
He said the district has always had enough bandwidth to meet its needs. About a year ago, the district overhauled its technology, which Bruce said gave it more bandwidth than the school will need for the foreseeable future.
"We're comfortable with the bandwidth we have," he said.