Missouri seeks public comment on $1.7B plan to increase broadband internet

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(The Center Square) – Missouri’s Office of Broadband Development is seeking public comment on its $1.7 billion plan for broadband expansion throughout the state.

The 99-page document is the next phase in the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program, a $42.45 billion federal plan to expand high-speed internet access throughout the nation. Missouri’s plan outlines how projects will be awarded and monitored. It will be open for comment through Dec. 15.

“We did a study two years ago that said it would cost about $2 billion to bring service to everybody,” BJ Tanksley, director of the Office of Broadband Development, said during an interview on the “Inside Eco Devo” podcast produced by the Missouri Department of Economic Development. “So we always knew, let’s get as much done as we can. … When you say we’ve got to get it to everyone, there will be tough places.”

Tanksley said large internet providers have used federal funding to provide service to rural areas. He also praised rural telephone companies, rural electric cooperatives and independent companies for efforts in hard-to-serve areas with the federal money.

“They are going beyond just the populated areas and, not to say that others are not, but they have combined to start working outside of what are generally the higher or more profitable areas,” Tanksley said.

The plan includes long-term objectives for deploying broadband and strategies for closing the digital divide. It also attempts to address access, affordability, equity and adoption issues along with economic growth and job creation.

“We very much welcome the public’s comments on that as well as (internet) providers,” Tanksley said. “We are only successful when we have people willing to take part in our programs. … We also understand that when you’re digging into the details, sometimes you have to step back and we want to see other people’s perspective.”

The plan follows publication of the department’s 2023 Missouri Internet Survey, consisting of 7,500 responses from a random sampling of Missouri households earlier this year. The research revealed only 4% of respondents chose not to purchase available internet services, revealing extremely high demand for service.

“While rural low-access households typically pay the most for services, they also have the greatest challenges in terms of internet speed and reliability,” the report stated. “Lower-income respondents, including low-income, smartphone-only and employment-challenged households, have decreased levels of internet access. Those that have service typically use it less for online activities and are more interested in internet-related training and assistance.”

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