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story.lead_photo.caption Missouri Department of Economic Development Director Rob Dixon speaks during a COVID-19 briefing Thursday, July 2, 2020, as Gov. Mike Parson, left, and Tim Arbeiter, director of DED's Office of Broadband Development, look on. Photo by Courtesy of Missouri Governor's Office

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of access to broadband internet for Missourians, and the directors of the Missouri Department of Economic Development and DED's Office of Broadband Development spoke Thursday about funding to expand broadband to hundreds of thousands of people who don't have adequate internet speeds.

DED Director Rob Dixon said nearly $50 million is available to address broadband needs, including $5.25 million to support expansion of telehealth services, $2.5 million in grants for libraries, $20 million for expansion of broadband to unserved and underserved households, and $20 million for K-12 and higher education institutions.

"Unserved" refers to households that do not have access to internet with 10 megabits per second of download speed and 1 megabit of upload speed, said Tim Arbeiter, director of DED's Office of Broadband Development.

Arbeiter said "underserved" refers to households that have access to at least 10 mbps download and 1 mbps upload speed, but not 25 mbps download and 3 mbps upload speed, or 25/3.

Providers will have to meet a minimum of 25/3 or higher, he said.

Once networks are in place in area, it will also be easier to upgrade those networks in the future as technology improves. "For those providers that are able to do the baseline of 25/3, many of them plan with the future in mind, and plan for expansion," Arbeiter said.

Dixon said the state is using federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act money to pay for the broadband funding. He noted more information about guidelines and the application process would be published in the coming days on the department's website.

There's a July 22 deadline for broadband providers to apply for the $20 million pot available for broadband expansion to households and a July 31 deadline for libraries to apply for the grant funding available to them, Arbeiter said.

Parson signed HB 1768 into law Thursday in Tipton, extending the Missouri Broadband Grant Program. The Missouri Legislature appropriated $5 million for the program in 2019, for DED to hold one competitive grant round in 2020; the grant awards were announced in March.

Parson's signature extended the program from an expiration of Aug. 28, 2021, to June 30, 2027. Under the newly signed law, grant recipients that do not meet the speed requirement of 25 megabits per second must repay funds received from the program, according to a news release from Parson's office.

On the state's budget overall, Parson said he would probably wait until later in the year to evaluate when 2021 budget withholds he announced this week might be undone — if the economy continues to improve and state revenues improve with its recovery.

"I want to release the money as soon as I can," he added.

He had announced more than $448 million in withholds Tuesday.

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