Missouri lawmakers plan to address lack of broadband access using COVID relief dollars


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – As schools moved online and adults worked from home, the pandemic showed the lack of broadband access in Missouri, and now some lawmakers are working through the summer to find a solution.

A handful of Representatives were back in the Capitol Thursday for a committee hearing on broadband development. According to Tim Abreiter, the director of broadband development for the Department of Economic Development, Missouri ranks 32nd in the nation for broadband access, but there are still hundreds of thousands of Missourians with no internet access.

“Pre-pandemic, certainly my focus was heavy infrastructure and access,” Abreiter said. “March through the pandemic, it was also the awareness that affordability is definitely a challenge, especially in all areas of the state, but it was probably the high propensity in our urban and suburban markets.”

During the pandemic, we all learned the importance of our phones, computers, and the internet. But nearly 400,000 Missourians still didn’t have access to the internet.

“That was another thing that when you talk about distance learning, a number of kids that may not have access to that device at their schools,” Arbeiter said. “And even if they have the device and they didn’t have the connectivity at home, they’re still on the same disconnect, which is called the digital divide.”

Arbeiter told the committee nearly 23% of Missouri students lack basic internet access.

Rep. Louis Riggs (R-Hannibal) is the chairman of the committee. He said he’s been working on studying how to develop better access in the state since 2016.

“So, job one is getting out to folks that don’t have it at all and that’s what we trying to get at here,” Riggs said. “Where are the gaps?”

The state of Missouri has spent nearly $23 million of COVID relief money to help schools, health care providers and libraries with broadband so far.

Abreiter said that between July and December 2020:

  • $4 million went to 10,000 hotspots for health clinics
  • $7 million went to around 73% of K-12 schools to expand campus Wi-Fi
  • $8.3 million went to 88% of higher education to help expand distance learning
  • $2.4 million went to 26 projects to connect 2,5000 to broadband
  • $800,000 went to 39 libraries, 80% of which were rural

“We’ve all heard the stories about the difficulties students and parents had with online education when schools went remote and the many Missourians encountered when they tried to access Telehealth resources that were utilized as much as 1,500% more than pre-pandemic levels,” Riggs said.

The goal of the committee is to fix the gaps throughout Missouri by studying where the state is currently and what is needed moving forward.

“It’s something we need to get done and with these federal dollars flowing in here, this is an historic opportunity to get it right,” Riggs said.

According to the data Abreiter provided to the committee, nearly 150,000 households are underserved or unserved, and Missouri’s digital divide index is 55.07. He said the closer a state is to 100, the bigger the divide is.

“We’re in a space of kind of waiting for that final guidance from the treasury,” Abreiter said. “There is interim guidance right now that’s been published by the treasury on the state recovery fund.”

The state is expected to get $2.69 billion from the American Rescue Plan for broadband infrastructure and to focus on Missourians who are underserved.

Riggs said the biggest concern right now in moving forward to expand broadband is infrastructure.

“It has been the issue, it is the issue and will continue to be the issue,” Riggs said. “Without access itself, the rest is academic. We’re not evening having a conversation about speed because there is no speed to talk about. There are places where it is available but it is cost prohibited to get at it.”

Abreiter told members right now, there is a 30-to-50-week backlog for fiber due to the lack of products needed to make it.

The committee plans to meet once a month for the remainder of the year.

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