Vescovo, Rob

House speaker Rob Vescovo oversees Friday's session.

(The Center Square) – Missouri ranks 32nd in the nation in broadband access with more than 147,000 unserved or underserved households and nearly 400,000 individuals without reliable internet access, a state official told a House panel Tuesday.

Missouri Department of Economic Development (DED) Director of Broadband Development Tim Arbeiter said Missouri was lagging behind other states in terms of access and reliability during a four-hour hearing before the House Interim Committee on Broadband Development.

The state is making progress in broadband expansion, but Arbeiter said only 55% of Missourians have access to a low-cost internet plan and 23% of Missouri’s students lack access to high-speed internet with most of those students living in rural areas.

Arbeiter manages the state’s Office of Broadband Development, which was created in 2018 by Missouri Department of Agriculture and DED to accelerate deployment of broadband statewide.

According to an interactive map created by the federal government as Congress ponders a proposed $64 billion broadband initiative, in most Missouri counties, at least 15% of residents are without internet access at all. The percentages are even higher in rural areas.

The seven-member interim committee was created by House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, and is chaired by Rep. Louis Riggs, R-Hannibal. Tuesday’s hearing was its second meeting.

It will convene monthly before presenting lawmakers and Gov. Mike Parson a December report outlining expansion options.

Riggs said broadband expansion affects nearly every aspect of the state’s economy, educational institutions and government administration.

He said the panel is focusing on four areas – online education, precision agriculture, telemedicine – and said members will organize town halls in their districts into the fall. The first broadband town hall will be in Kansas City in late July, he said.

The hearing featured a presentation by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ broadband access initiative on broadband expansion efforts in other states and testimony from representatives of SEMO Electric Cooperative, Ralls County Electric Cooperative, Co-Mo Electric Cooperative and Missouri Farm Bureau, all of whom urged lawmakers to boost funding for rural broadband expansion.

“Other states are beating us. If you want to get something done, help get more money and cut down on some of these rules and regulations,” SEMO Electric Cooperative CEO/General Manager Sean Vanslyke said. “Access is very important, and not just for work. If you want your grandchildren and family to come see you, you need to have service.”

Ralls County Electric Cooperative General Manager Lynn Hodges said cooperatives face high upfront costs in expanding broadband to rural homes, incurring debt for decades. He said it will cost millions to extend broadband to about 400 homes in his cooperative without it.

“A majority of our folks live in rural settings along blacktop roads, and when rural cooperatives deploy, we deploy to 100% of our membership,” he said. “It’s not about a lack of effort or desire to see broadband out there – it’s how can we fund it and make it work.”

Missouri Farm Bureau broadband consultant Janie Dunning said expanded broadband access is a key priority for the state’s agriculture industry, which is increasingly reliant on technology.

Pew Charitable Trusts’ broadband access initiative project director Kathryn de Wit and senior research officer Anna Read said the Tennessee Legislature this year allocated $100 million for broadband expansion while Arkansas and Iowa appropriated funds to bolster specific locations across the state.

De Wit said the demand for access and increased speed will rise even more dramatically over the next five years.

Representatives from Google, Whisper Internet, the University of Missouri and city of Kansas City are scheduled to testify before the interim committee in August.