JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The effort to get rural Missouri connected to the internet is making in another push in the General Assembly.
The Special Committee on Innovation and Technology heard testimony on Wednesday regarding House Bill 1872, which would set up the “Missouri Rural Broadband Development Fund.”
The fund would be used to expand broadband access into rural areas through grants.
Currently, 61 percent of people living in rural Missouri are without internet, according to BJ Tanksley, a representative from the Missouri Farm Bureau. He tried to qualify it to a number for the committee, “roughly one million rural Missourians don’t have access to the internet.”
Doug Galloway, a representative from Centurylink, said the percentage of people truly without access to the internet is probably less than 40 percent and that some statistics on internet access factor in speed.
Either way, Missouri is among the ten worst states for connectivity — ranking 42nd in the United States— according to BroadbandNow. States that rank lower include Montana, Wyoming, Mississippi, Alaska, New Mexico, Arkansas, West Virginia and Oklahoma.
“Internet isn’t a right,” Rep. T.J. Berry, R-Kearney, said. He pointed out that people choose to live where they live and that people can decide to live somewhere with internet access.
“It will help rural areas retain people,” Brent Steward said. “Rural areas not gonna get new businesses out there if they don’t have access to internet. Almost all [businesses] have to have access to broadband.”
Getting rural areas connected is more than just internet access. It is access to virtual schooling, telehealth, tools needed for businesses and access to a large market.
“This would have a positive impact on many sectors of the economy,” said Justin Arnold, a representative with the Missouri Chamber of Commerce.
Several of those that spoke in support cited the need for rural areas to be connected to the internet from a business, agricultural and accessibility standpoint.
“This is a good step forward,” Shannon Cooper, representing the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, said. He went on to add that many want to be connected but “there is not enough of us to make it worthwhile.”
Rep. Jeanie Lauer, R-Blue Springs, questioned — not the bill or the need for it — if those in rural communities would be okay with more lines and infrastructure coming into the areas, having recalled it being an issue in the past.
“Property rights will always have to be weighed,” Tanksley said. “Those things are negotiated between companies and individuals and they still would be.”
The bill is “nearly identical” to the program currently operating in Minnesota, according the bill sponsor, Delus Johnson, R- St. Joseph. “98 percent is identical language.”
“The program [in Minnesota] has been very successful,” said Richard Telthorst, president of the Missouri Telecommunications Industry Association, who visited with his counterpart in Minnesota.
“Do you want speed or coverage?” Galloway asked the committee. “Because it is difficult to do both.”
He pointed out that if it was easy to get broadband into rural areas, companies would have found a way to do it by now.
Though no one spoke in opposition to the bill, several testified for information purposes only and urged the committee to focus on unserved areas before the underserved areas.
“Make sure that as you move forward, you focus on need,” Bill Gamble, a representative from the Missouri Small Telephone Company Group. “Don’t duplicated services that are already in existence.”
Alisha Shurr is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine. She joined the Missouri Times in January 2018 after working as a copy editor for her hometown newspaper in Southern Oregon. Alisha is a graduate of Kansas State University. Contact Alisha at firstname.lastname@example.org.