By Eric Bohl
To be a part of the modern world, high-speed internet access is no longer optional. We’ve been saying this since at least the 1990s, yet Missouri continues to lag behind other states. Somehow we have entered the third decade of the 2000s with more than 1.2 million Missourians still lacking access to broadband internet. This is more than any other state except California and Texas.
Missouri Farm Bureau made broadband access a top priority the past two state legislative sessions. We successfully advocated for an Office of Broadband Development, which was established within the Department of Economic Development in 2018.
Last year the legislature allocated $5 million to the Missouri Broadband Grant Program. Initial applications for the grant program, administered by the new Office of Broadband, closed January 7. The program can fund up to 50 percent of construction costs for broadband deployment. It focuses on projects that bring broadband to unserved areas of Missouri. The Office of Broadband will announce recipients March 5.
In 2020, we need to continue our investment by directing more money to this fund. The General Assembly should also extend the grant program’s authorization beyond its current August 2021 sunset. There is a lot more work to do before every rural Missourian has access to broadband.
Broadband funding also continues to be a focal point for federal lawmakers and agencies. In early January, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai proposed creating a $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to help rural areas receive high-speed internet. The FCC would spread the money over a 10-year period, but award the bulk of the funds up front in late 2020.
According to reports by Agri-Pulse, the plan is designed to be “technology-neutral.” This would mean many different types of competitors might take part. Likely participants include “electric utilities, cable companies and telecommunications firms.” The first $16 billion phase would focus on wholly unserved areas, covering about six million homes and businesses. The FCC will vote on the plan January 30.
Chairman Pai also recently named Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst to a working group as part of the FCC’s new Precision Agriculture Connectivity Task Force. This group of people with real-world experience in precision agriculture will advise the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the FCC about the needs of tomorrow’s farmers.
These federal and state efforts are also being combined with private industry. If all of these groups pull in the same direction, we can close the digital divide that currently exists between rural and urban citizens. Of course, as new technologies come online, we will need to keep fighting to ensure rural areas are not left behind.
In the 2020s, every American deserves the opportunity to access the modern economy and engage in modern culture. Through consistent effort, Missouri can move to the head of the pack and provide broadband to all corners of our state.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Eric Bohl, of Columbia, Mo., is Director of Public Affairs and Advocacy for Missouri Farm Bureau, the state's largest farm organization.