More than 147,000 Missouri households (or about 400,000 residents) don’t have access to high-speed internet. That’s according to Gov. Mike Parson’s office, citing data from the Federal Communications Commission. And, it should come as no surprise that most of those residents live in rural parts of the state.
Poverty, Education, and Broadband
In Poverty & Education in the Show-Me State published last year, OneMissouri looked at a variety of factors that prevent Missourians from breaking out of the poverty cycle. One of those factors was a lack of affordable, reliable broadband internet access. Our research confirmed that the counties with the highest poverty levels based on the 2020 Missouri Poverty Report were also the same counties whose residents struggled the most in securing broadband connectivity.
As our report indicated, this lack of connectivity makes online learning difficult if not impossible. When K-12 schools and higher education institutions were forced to quickly divert to virtual learning due to COVID, connectivity points were stretched beyond the breaking point. School officials worked hard to provide creative solutions with results that were mixed at best. For example, some K-12 schools drove school buses to designated areas each day that were equipped with wifi hotspots. Students could sit on the bus or nearby and tap into the cell-driven service.
However, hours were limited and buses could accommodate only a few students at a time. Proper seating and desk accommodations were lacking, and students often had no access to restrooms. Inclimate weather days made online learning impossible.
The situation was only slightly better for adults. Business owners, farmers, teachers, college students, and others who were forced to rely on remote access experienced the frustration of crippling slow connection speeds, if they could gain access at all. The only advantage they had over K-12 students was the ability to drive to a better location that had improved connectivity.
The bottom line is that there is no substitute for affordable, reliable broadband access in the homes of Missourians who want it.
American Rescue Plan Funds
As part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 passed by Congress and signed by President Biden on March 11, help is on the way. The digital divide means many American families will continue to be left behind. The problem will increase as work and education continue to rely more heavily on distance-based learning and interactions. The Plan provides $10 billion for states, territories, and Tribes to cover the costs of capital projects like broadband infrastructure.
As part of that $10 billion, Missouri will receive $400 million to expand our state’s broadband connectivity access. Gov. Parson made the announcement at the State Fair. He plans to use this money to provide access points in every corner of the state.
However, Parson’s plans to use these funds must be approved by the Missouri State Legislature, and it won’t begin its 2022 session until January. So, construction won’t begin any time soon, and it’s quite possible that lawmakers could modify Parson’s plans for the money.
In addition to the $400 that the state will receive from federal funds, the Missouri Department of Economic Development also submitted an application to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Broadband Infrastructure Program. The agency is requesting an additional $56 million for broadband deployment. If approved it could support up to 19 projects, connecting more than 17,000 households, businesses, and other institutions.
It’s past time that Missouri got serious about eliminating the digital divide that exists in so many parts of our state. Lawmakers need to approve Parson’s plan for this federal allocation, and quickly.
OneMissouri is committed to research, education, advocacy, and policy development on behalf of all Missourians.
Top Graphic Credit: Amanda Mills, USCDP on Pixnio