A committee of Missouri legislators intended to find solutions for broadband issues around the state has begun looking at the array of resources coming available during the pandemic.
The state House of Representatives' Special Interim Committee on Broadband Development held its inaugural meeting Thursday. Tim Arbeiter, the Department of Economic Development's director of broadband development, gave the committee a general idea of where Missouri sits in terms of broadband, what is happening with development now and what to expect in the near future.
Missouri ranks 32nd among the states for broadband access for residents. While lower than the state wishes to be, the ranking reflects an improvement of nine spots from previous surveys, he said.
Access is one of three challenges the committee is tasked with looking into, said committee Chairman Rep. Louis Riggs, R-Hannibal.
The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly illustrated access to high-speed broadband internet services may no longer be considered a luxury, Riggs said.
"(It's) a necessity far too many Missourians have done — and continue to do — without," he said.
We've all heard stories about how students, parents and teachers struggled when schools offered only online education in 2020. And, he said, use of telehealth services increased by a factor of more than 15 during the pandemic.
House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, directed the committee to determine where broadband access in the state lies in 2021, where it needs to be and what steps lawmakers need to take to assure broadband is readily available for every Missourian who wants it.
"We will examine three core areas — access, speed and affordability," Riggs said. "The first is a no-brainer. Without access, the rest is academic."
Internet access maps provided through the Federal Communications Commission at the national level are flawed and out of date, he said. They don't provide accurate depictions of where broadband is in Missouri — "and, more importantly, where it is not," he continued.
Speed is a major concern for Missourians, Riggs said. During the height of the pandemic, businesses experienced a lack of bandwidth. Two "major sources of competition," Netflix and YouTube, slowed bandwidth, he said. They "soaked up 40-45 percent of bandwidth while kids were out of school."
Missouri was at times ranked 49th in speed, he said.
The federal government recommends 100/100 symmetrical speeds, while the Missouri standard is 25/3. That means the feds want citizens to have access to 100 megabytes per second download and upload speeds. The standard in Missouri is 25 megabytes per second of download speed and 3 megabytes per second of upload speed. (The Missouri standards, 25/3, are minimum recommended speeds from the FCC.)
"We all know, when the federal government starts thinking out loud, the recommendations soon become requirements, and we need to be prepared for that day in the not-too-distant future," Riggs said.
Affordability affects the entire state, he continued.
"There are broadband deserts in our urban areas, as well as across rural Missouri," he said.
A number of programs already exist that are filling gaps in Missouri.
Right now, Arbeiter said, more than $824 million is being invested in the state on construction and expansion of high-speed internet services.
"This is a combination of state programs — mostly federal programs," he said. "So this is a combination of Federal Communications Commission and U.S. (Department of Agriculture). We also are starting to see other federal agencies get engaged in the broadband space."
Those entities include the Economic Development Administration and the Delta Regional Authority (which includes 29 counties in Southeast and South Central Missouri).
Some of the programs currently investing in Missouri broadband include:
FCC Connect America Fund is channeling $255 million into Missouri (through 11 providers reaching about 95,000 locations).
FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is providing $346.3 million through 13 providers and four consortiums (expanding access to about 200,000 locations).
USDA Reconnect Round One is providing $103 million (gaining broadband access for 4,053 households and 182 farms and businesses).
USDA Reconnect Round Two identified five providers, who are receiving $94.4 million (gaining broadband for 15,989 households and 2,173 farms and businesses).
Emergency Broadband Investment (state) Program is spreading $3.9 million among 13 providers to give access to 2,465 homes.
Missouri Broadband Grant Program awarded $3.05 million to 13 providers, expanding access for 4,416 locations.
"These are expansion projects currently underway," Arbeiter reiterated.
Other projects include investments in public access to broadband at libraries, schools and health care clinics. Additionally, through CARES Act funding, the state was able to fund 42 projects, he said. The Missouri Department of Economic Development provided funding for Socket Telecom LLC to improve broadband service in Ashland and St. Martins through its Broadband Investment Program.
"Our project areas are a little bit smaller than what the federal programs can do," Arbeiter said, "because there are a lot more resources at the federal level."
The House committee will meet monthly until Dec. 1, Riggs said. It is to take live, written and remote testimony over the next five months. The goal is to prepare a report and generate policy options and appropriations requests before the end of the year.
County, city leaders discuss broadband opportunities
After talking with state lawmakers Thursday morning, Arbeiter met with Cole County and Jefferson City leaders about their fledgling efforts to improve broadband service.
At the initial meeting of this community broadband task force, Arbeiter told the group it needs to think of improving broadband access as "a marathon, not a sprint."
"I know people say they'd like to get it right now, but there are many hurdles that have to be cleared," Arbeiter said.
Due to the outdated FCC access maps, Arbeiter said, the group might consider a public campaign to let residents conduct speed tests on their service, then collect that information to show where there is need for broadband improvement.
The Cole County Commission has already undergone discussions with officials from Callaway Electric Cooperative and Co-Mo-Electric Cooperative, each of which offers fiber-optic broadband service. They've discussed working with the county on broadband projects using federal COVID-19 relief funds from the American Rescue Plan. Federal officials have said ARP revenue could fund infrastructure projects, especially those that increase broadband capabilities for residents.
Presiding Commissioner Sam Bushman said commissioners have heard from other providers since last month's meeting but have to look at the population density and geology of an area before expanding into it. The presence of a lot of rock, he said, could make the cost of a project prohibitive.
Eastern District Commissioner Jeff Hoelscher said he has discussed the issue with people representing some of the smaller communities in his district. He told them even if the county did use ARP funds for broadband, the work might not be completed for another three or four years. All ARP relief funds must be allocated by Dec. 31, 2024, but spending of funds may continue through the end of 2026.
Missy Bonnot, Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce economic development director, asked county and city elected officials at Thursday's meeting if they believe broadband expansion is an area they want to spend much of their ARP funding on. Bushman and Hoelscher said they believe they would; however, Hoelscher said Cole County has several entities asking about potentially funding other projects. Jefferson City Mayor Carrie Tergin said the city continues to review the ARP guidelines and more data would have to be provided regarding potential funding for broadband service.
There was no date set for when the task force would meet again. Bonnot suggested the county and city should go back and decide how much ARP funding they will commit to broadband and then the task force could come back together to see what steps need to be taken.