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Parson announces $50M for broadband expansion

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri will be getting a substantial boost to its broadband expansion efforts, Gov. Mike Parson said. 

The governor announced nearly $50 million in CARES Act funds will go towards expanding Missouri’s broadband infrastructure. The funds will go through several new initiatives focused on expanding access for various causes.

“Since I became governor, expanding broadband services, especially in Missouri’s rural communities, has been a focus of my administration,” Parson said during Thursday’s press briefing. “The digital divide in rural Missouri limits growth in many sectors of our economy. Now, with the challenges posed by COVID-19, access to high-speed broadband is more important than ever to our infrastructure and economy.”

A large portion of the funding will go to expanding the state’s telehealth services, which will secure more than 12,500 internet hotspots for use by federally qualified health centers. Additional funds are set to expand internet services for libraries, K-12 schools, and higher education distance learning programs. 

Internet access in rural communities was a major factor in a recent report from the Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development. The report stated that many of Missouri’s colleges across the state had experienced issues with remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic due to poor internet access in rural areas for both staff and students.

“Broadband internet is the backbone of a resilient economy,” said Missouri Department of Economic Development Director Rob Dixon. “Unfortunately, many Missourians lack access to high-speed internet, and that’s why the governor has prioritized these investments. Some 300,000 households, 195,000 K-12 students, and 54,000 businesses and farms lack high-speed internet access. And today, the actions taken by Gov. Parson will help thousands of Missourians go to school, go to work, and go to the doctor.”

The announcement came hours after Parson signed a bill extending Missouri’s Broadband Grant Program created in 2018 to help providers and customers in rural areas invest in broadband infrastructure. 

During the 2019 legislative session, $5 million was set aside for the first round of funding for the broadband expansion program. HB 1768, sponsored by state Rep. Louis Riggs, extends the program past its current expiration date of Aug. 28, 2021 through 2027.

“Internet access is an ongoing issue,” Riggs told The Missouri Times. “We’ve made significant strides to build up that capacity, and hopefully we can continue to expand access for Missouri.”

Parson also signed HB 2120 Thursday, which makes a number of changes to provisions on utilities, including allowing schools to submit a water sample for lead testing to ensure that it meets health standards. Sponsor state Rep. Bill Kidd said the bill is more than just a water cleanliness test.

“The bill saves about a thousand jobs,” Kidd told The Missouri Times. “It saves contractor and union jobs, and also fixes some things related to utilities that were ambiguous in the law. This is not just a little water-infrastructure bill; it saves jobs in the state, which is very important right now.”

Kidd said the jobs are saved by clarifying state law on infrastructure replacement charges. His legislation replaces an old method used by Missouri’s Public Service Commission (PSC) that was found to be inefficient last year by the Western Court of Appeals.

“This legislation restores the PSC’s right to regulate gas utilities, including the replacement of pipes that meet the statutory definition of deteriorating or worn out,” Senate handler Sen. Wayne Wallingford told The Missouri Times. “This legislation will make Missouri safer by ensuring old and worn-out pipes are replaced as soon as they pose a risk to our communities.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: For up-to-date information on coronavirus, check with the CDC and DHSS.