New state broadband grant funds aim to encourage connectivity and boost the economy.
Sixteen broadband developments across the state will receive a total of $3.05 million through Missouri's broadband grant program, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced Friday. The selected projects will bring service to more than 4,400 Missouri homes, businesses and farms that lack access to high-speed internet.
"Broadband brings so many new opportunities for rural economies," Parson said in a news release. "From farming and business to education and health care, high-speed internet is essential infrastructure in the modern economy, especially during these challenging times."
Callaway County's Callabyte Technology will receive $335,806 of that funding.
Callabyte is available within a territory skirting Fulton and reaching west and north to the county borders, east into the southern part of Montgomery County, and to New Bloomfield and parts of Holts Summit in the southwest. It currently serves around 4,700 homes and businesses.
This money will help the company expand into the southern and western areas of Holts Summit, said Thomas Howard, CEO/GM of Callaway Electric Cooperative. The area includes primarily residential customers.
"It's going to touch potentially 241 if not more subscribers," Howard said. "We've had quite a bit of inquiry and demand from that area."
He said that expansion project would begin "in the next few days," and he anticipates it will be complete by the end of 2020.
"It's kind of a win-win-win — and I include three wins because it's a win for state of Missouri, which has been working diligently to expand high-speed internet access into rural areas, it's a win for Callabyte because it increases our subscriber base and opportunity, and most importantly it's a win for the people," Howard said.
Howard said demand has been steadily growing for Callabyte's high-speed internet — in areas the company doesn't yet serve and in areas where it's already present. Interest and new customers have spiked since the arrival of COVID-19 in the area. Customers have mentioned needing the connection for school work, work-from-home and telemedicine, he said.
"We've altered our business somewhat in how we communicate with people, but we're still installing our service on a daily basis," Howard said. "It's been very rewarding to provide a much-needed service for people in these trying times."
Previously, Callabyte has received funding from the Federal Communications Commission, which in 2019 announced Callabyte would receive $2.17 million during the course of 10 years to aid its expansion to about 1,400 additional businesses and homes.
Nearly 600,000 rural Missourians lack access to high-speed internet, according to the latest FCC data. The broadband grant was established by the legislature in 2018 and is a joint effort between the Department of Economic Development and the Department of Agriculture. The program matches up to 50 percent of eligible expenses.
"It is crucial that Missourians have an opportunity to get connected," Department of Economic Development Director Rob Dixon said in a news release. "During a time in which many citizens have been instructed to stay home, reliable internet access is critical to meet needs for education, telemedicine, telecommuting and overall quality of life."
Along with other state departments, the Department of Economic Development has created a webpage (bit.ly/3amKhTR) that lists broadband discounts, waivers and free resources available to Missourians during the COVID-19 pandemic. These efforts are intended to help ensure residents have continued access to necessary services and businesses remain connected to customers in today's economy.
"The COVID-19 outbreak has emphasized the importance of strong connectivity for our families, businesses and communities, especially in rural Missouri," Missouri Department of Agriculture Chris Chinn said in the news release. "The demand on our digital infrastructure is unprecedented right now. We need every last mile connected to high-speed internet — all the way to the farm gate — for our rural students, workforce and entrepreneurs."
Missouri Farm Bureau also voiced support for the grants.
"High-speed internet access should be available to every citizen. As the current crisis has made all too clear, broadband is critical to our state's future," MFB president Blake Hurst said Friday. "Missouri Farm Bureau worked closely with the legislature to create this program. We continued to stay engaged with the Office of Broadband Development as it set up the grant process. As awardees begin projects, we will remain engaged to ensure the grant dollars are used wisely and effectively."