JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Nearly 400,000 Missouri households lack internet access. But millions of dollars in federal funds are being used to fix the problem.
The pandemic showed us all how important broadband is, whether you were working from home, going to school, or having a doctor’s appointment. The state’s plan with the money coming in from the federal government is to expand broadband, but is it possible that every Missouri will have access?
Back in 2016, the state created the Office of Broadband Development under the Department of Economic Development (DED). Since then, there have been many discussions about how to increase broadband, but then there was COVID.
“It’s a big problem and it’s costly too,” said BJ Tanksley, director of the Office of Broadband Development. “For a long time, we’ve been talking about the need for internet access, but the pandemic shined a light on the need for connectivity.”
Some might think only rural Missourians lack access but it turns out urban areas are also facing a shortfall.
“We see large amounts of rural Missouri not having access, but we also see some of our urban areas where there was investment years ago in outdated technology that hasn’t been updated,” Tanksley said.
Unlike years past, money is flush in the Show Me State. Back in May, lawmakers approved spending $265 million from American Rescue Plan (ARPA) funds to expand internet access. Tanksley said there are also hundreds of millions more coming from the federal infrastructure bill, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).
“One of the things that’s really a reality of broadband deployment is it’s expensive,” Tanksley said. “Whether it’s going on power lines or trenching underground it costs a lot of money.”
Tanksley said there are two programs under IIJA. The first is called BEAD, the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment, and the other is DEA, the Digital Equity Act which focuses exclusively on digital equity concerns.
“That’s where we’ll be able to address digital literacy and making sure people are fully prepared to engage with the internet,” Tanksley said. “It doesn’t matter if you have a connection if you don’t see the value in it and you’re not able to fully take advantage of it.”
Recently the office completed a survey, showing 430,000 units had no access to the internet. Tanksley said a unit is a household, business, or community institution.
“They said it’s probably 85% to 90% of that 430,000 are households,” Tanksley said. “It’s not great, but Missouri is a diverse state. We have urban centers, we have places where people live together, then we have a lot of rural areas that aren’t generally served or have poor access. Getting to those places where this is one, two, or three people per mile, it cost a lot for a provider.”
For now, the Office of Broadband Development is working on distributing the ARPA funds to providers and communities across the state.
“The state is not deploying fiber,” Tanksley said. “It’s going to take partnerships to make it happen.”
But the federal money isn’t enough to make sure every Missourian has access. Tanksley said to close all the gaps, it would cost roughly $2 billion.
“When you look geographically, it’s far and dispersed and you’re talking about northeast Missouri and south-central Missouri with lots of hills and it takes a lot of money to get to each place,” Tanksley said. “That’s why it hasn’t been done. If it weren’t so expensive, companies would be doing it. The return on investment would be easier to make.”
The state partners with providers and communities across Missouri and offers grants, but if a company uses those grants, Tanksley said they are required to make the access affordable.
“They are going to have to prove that when they apply for grants,” Tanksley said. “They’re not going to be allowed to have state funding to support their project and then not have it be affordable to the end-user.”
The ARPA dollars must be spent by the end of 2026 but under IIJA, Tanksley said it will be a years-long project. The office hopes to open the applications for the grants in July, with rolling out the money this fall and projects starting early next year.
“Once we fund these things, these projects will take two, three, four years to complete, but for every connection being made, that’s one less person that has service,” Tanksley said.
During the pandemic, the office received calls from Missourians around the state saying they didn’t have the right access or no internet at all. Tanksley said the department keeps track of those phone calls to note where there are issues.
“I don’t want to promise that everybody has service in six years, but the idea is a lot more people will, and it will go a long way towards closing that gap,” Tanksley said.
The DED has a survey open on its website until Friday. Comments will help the department draft the guidelines for the upcoming application process which they hope to open in July.