Parson Gives Boost to Rural Broadband
By Eric Bohl
For years Missouri has struggled to keep pace with the need to build internet infrastructure. Rural areas have suffered more than most. Over one million rural Missourians lack access to affordable high-speed internet. This ranks our state third behind only California and Texas.
The past couple of years have seen significant progress in bringing rural Missouri up to speed. In 2018 the state established an Office of Broadband in the Department of Economic Development (DED). This office gave Missouri a clearinghouse to coordinate development efforts. In 2019, Governor Mike Parson and the state legislature directed $5 million to the newly created Missouri Broadband Grant Program. In early 2020 DED announced the first grant awardees. Several other efforts by the federal government and private industry have given hope to unserved and underserved rural populations.
The first week of July, Governor Parson announced bold new actions to continue this momentum. On July 2, the Governor signed into law HB 1768. This new law allows Neighborhood Improvement Districts and Community Improvement Districts to partner with broadband providers to bring service to their residents. These Districts can be a powerful development tool. Affordable broadband internet is now clearly a big part of the infrastructure needed for modern life. The law also extended the Missouri Broadband Grant Program’s sunset provision by six years. It will now be able to issue grants until 2027.
Later that same day, Governor Parson made an even larger announcement for broadband development. Mostly using federal Coronavirus Relief Fund resources, the Governor is allocating nearly $50 million to a half-dozen new broadband-related initiatives. The COVID-19 pandemic has crystallized the importance of broadband for work, school and healthcare. The Governor’s new programs will address each of these needs and raise the quality of life in rural Missouri.
In these trying times, expanded telehealth capabilities could make a huge difference to rural citizens. With COVID case counts rising, a two-hour drive to the nearest city for a doctor’s appointment looks pretty unappealing. Reports of delayed care and skipped appointments are worrying healthcare experts. Governor Parson’s plan allocates $5.25 million to telehealth services for vulnerable populations so they can receive the care they need closer to home.
Education continues to be a struggle, with schools closing and Fall reopening plans looking uncertain. Over $20 million of the funds will improve distance learning, including K-12 and higher education. Rural students shouldn’t have to risk their health to continue to learn. This program will ensure their parents do not have to make that choice.
Governor Parson is also dedicating $20 million to expand broadband service to homes with students, remote workers or people vulnerable to COVID-19. The program is expected to make more than 10,000 new connections by this November.
Connecting rural Missouri is a long-term challenge, but we are making progress. We will need more strong leadership like this in the coming years to reach our goal of bringing every Missourian access to affordable broadband. When that day comes, none of our fellow citizens will have to sacrifice their health, education or wellbeing because of where they live.
Eric Bohl, of Columbia, Missouri, is Director of Public Affairs and Advocacy for Missouri Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm organization.