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Cierpiot tackles rural broadband expansion in new bill

The Missouri Times is previewing pre-filed legislation during the month of December, bringing you an insider’s look at bills that could potentially drive session next year. Follow along with our Legislative Preview series here.

Rural broadband has long been a concern of Missouri lawmakers, but many small communities find themselves struggling to afford the necessary resources. A new Senate bill aims to change that.

SB 108, pre-filed this month by Sen. Mike Cierpiot, would allow two or more municipalities to form a broadband infrastructure improvement district together. The combined district would be able to contract with local providers and fund their operation through grants, bonds, or a sales tax under 1 percent. 

State Sen. Mike Cierpiot

Cierpiot said the bill would present communities with the option to work together and pool their resources.

“It’s a little like a TIFF or a taxing district — it can be used to generate enough revenue so they can build the backbone stricture they need,” Cierpiot told The Missouri Times. “The federal government is trying to do this sort of thing with grants, but Missouri is a big state, and there’s only a finite amount of money. This bill would allow jurisdictions to work together and try to help their citizens.” 

Cierpiot, who spent nearly 40 years for AT&T as a network engineer, said many rural communities struggle to afford the equipment needed to build their infrastructure. 

“Our state struggles with broadband access in its rural areas,” he said. “In this modern world, it’s very difficult for these areas to do well without that basic tool. Some of these rural areas are so small that they’ll never be part of the network because they just can’t afford the equipment — terminals can be very expensive, so areas that are not so heavily populated have difficulty getting something deployed without public support and funds.”

Cierpiot said he lived in a city where internet access wasn’t difficult to come by, but the same could not be said for many of the state’s rural areas. He noted that expanding internet access was a concern shared by the governor, constituents, and the legislature alike. 

“For people that still don’t have access, it’s really a roadblock,” he said. “It’s getting to be more and more important over time. If we’re ever going to get to rural areas caught up economically, it’s kind of a basic thing to have. While a lot of areas way out may still have trouble making it work, but a lot of these areas have a higher population density and the distance wouldn’t be so great. If we could just get the funding for it, there’s a real chance it would help the problem.”

Cierpiot said the challenges to work and education presented by the COVID-19 pandemic made internet access an even greater need than in prior years.

“Especially with schools shutting down in many areas and kids absolutely needing broadband to do their schoolwork, I think there’s a bigger demand and need for it than ever before,” he said. “The technology we have now could work for these communities if we could get the critical mass or the funding to help offset the cost.”

With the legislative session on the horizon, Cierpiot said he was less concerned with his idea than with finding the solution that worked best for rural Missouri.

“I don’t claim to have all the answers on the bill,” he said. “I filed this to get a conversation going, and I’m completely open to other ideas, whether they’re ways to do it better or differently. We just need to do something to get this deployed out there, and if these taxing jurisdictions can combine forces it may help them do that.” 

The 2021 session begins Jan. 6.