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Broadband vital to maintaining Missouri’s workforce, economists say

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Economists told lawmakers Monday broadband investments were key to keeping college graduates and remote workers in Missouri.

Abner Womack, co-founder of the University of Missouri’s Dynamic Econometric Economic Development Program (DEEDP), and co-director Keith Eisberg addressed the economic impact of broadband on rural development and the state’s workforce. Womack said bids for funds from the federal infrastructure package signed into law last week would likely favor fixed wireless — which wirelessly connects multiple locations to offer internet service within a certain area — rather than fiber for its ability to offer wider range to customers at a lower cost. 

Womack suggested investing the state’s allotment all at once rather than doling it out over the next few years to entice new college graduates and professionals with a more robust broadband infrastructure to stay in Missouri. He said Missouri lost billions of dollars a year as more and more people seek jobs out of state. 

“Over the years we’ve trained all of these students, and if we don’t have high-level service out there we’re going to lose them — the pandemic has taught us that,” Womack told the House Special Interim Committee on Broadband Development. “Everybody has done the best they could do with whatever they had, but now we know more about what the longer-run savings would be if you did a one-time high-cost investment. … Our time has come: We have what we need to bring them back, and we want to get on board with that.”

Womack said the bill required states to update their broadband service maps, a process also underway at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Several stakeholders have addressed mapping concerns before the committee, noting FCC maps collect data on a census block data level, labeling blocks with at least one home receiving service as “served.” 

Outgoing Office of Broadband Development Director Tim Arbeiter and Department of Agriculture Director Chris Chinn addressed the use of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and infrastructure package funds, with Chinn reiterating the need to keep graduates in Missouri through expanded infrastructure. 

Arbeiter noted the state’s allocation of $400 million in ARPA funds was progressing through the research process in the executive branch with Missouri’s plan prioritizing access, adoption, and technical assistance. Arbeiter said the office would publish a draft of its plan to gather public feedback before it was officially approved and agencies were prepared to deploy the funds once approved by the legislature. 

Arbeiter will vacate his position on Jan. 7 to transition into the private sector. The Department of Economic Development, which hosts the office, has begun the search for a replacement. 

Missouri is expected to receive a minimum of $100 million to improve its broadband infrastructure under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, providing access to more than 330,000 residents, as well as a $600,000 federal grant with a state match and other funds. 

The committee, chaired by Rep. Louis Riggs, heard testimony from various agriculture groups, health care providers, educators, and service providers over the interim. Monday’s hearing was the final round of public testimony, Riggs said.

The committee will file a report with its findings for the legislature to consider next session. 

Missouri ranks No. 34 in broadband access, according to Arbeiter, down two spots from where it sat in June as other states take steps to bridge the digital divide. There are more than 147,000 unserved or underserved households and more than 392,000 individuals without reliable internet access. The state has made drastic improvements despite the high numbers, increasing its ranking by 10 points since 2018.