by: Jason Taylor, Missouri Net News

Missouri continues efforts to expand broadband access across its rural areas. The state is one of the biggest beneficiaries of an auction conducted over the summer by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in which $1.5 billion in federal funds will be used to subsidize expansion to un-served areas over the next 10 years.

Missouri received an investment commitment of $255 million over a decade as companies competed in a “reverse auction” in which bidders that committed to delivering the best service while using the smallest amount of FCC subsidies got to serve that region.

The FCC Broadband Progress Report shows that 1.25 million Missourians – or 20% – don’t have access to high-speed Internet (25mpbs/3mbps). The majority of those citizens reside in rural communities.

Organizational progress has been made in the state in the current year to address the needs for rural high-speed internet.

The Broadband Development Office was established earlier in 2018 as a partnership between the Department of Economic Development and the Department of Agriculture to align efforts across the state to improve broadband access.

Also, a bill passed by the legislature and signed into law this year created the Missouri Rural Broadband Development Fund. The fund establishes a grant program within the Department of Economic Development to expand broadband to unserved and under-served parts of Missouri.

The grants will provide 50% funding to build infrastructure that would offer internet download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and an upload pace of no less than three megabits per second.  The grants would work with matching federal funding of 50%.

Tim Arbeiter, who was chosen as Director of the Broadband Development Office in July, says the legislature did a good job in creating the grant program, but will now have to provide financial support for it. “There was no appropriation of funds to fund the first round,” said Arbeiter. “So, that will probably be something we will be looking at from a recommendation standpoint for the next budget cycle.”

Once financing is in place, the Rural Broadband Development Fund will work to achieve 90% coverage in the state and then seek to improve broadband speeds to underserved areas.

An unserved area is anyplace in Missouri where broadband access isn’t available. Geographically, 61% of the state’s land mass is unserved. A major stumbling block for delivery of broadband to unserved areas is the cost of getting it to those consumers, who are typically in rural locations.  Unserved areas lie in geographic spots that are often referred to as the “last mile” of internet infrastructure.

Arbeiter says determining which areas to build out infrastructure first will require accurate information. “It’s going to have to be that cross-section, and that’s where good data and good coverage maps will help us out in our endeavor as we assess and review the eventual application,” Arbeiter said.

When there’s a roadmap for broadband expansion and money is in place, grants through the state’s Broadband Development Fund will fund half the cost of a project and provide a maximum $2.5 million to a given project.

According to Broadband Now, Missouri ranks 41st in the country for high-speed internet access. There’s a massive disparity in broadband accessibility between some urban and rural counties. 100% of the population on St. Louis City has access to 25 megabits per second download. 98.2% of Jackson County, which includes Kansas City, has the same capability while 0.3% of Schuyler County at the northern border of Missouri and 0.8% of Ozark County which straddles the southern border have access to 25 megabits.

Some states have much higher goals for rural internet speeds Missouri’s benchmark of 25 megabits upload/3 megabits download. Minnesota has been quoted as seeking 100/100 by 2025.

Arbeiter thinks the state should look for ways to boost broadband speeds beyond the stated benchmark whenever possible.  “Looking at 25/3, if opportunities to expand higher than that, then we should go after that,” said Arbeiter.