A push to improve rural broadband services


Two items received this week detail efforts to improve broadband internet services in rural Missouri.

The first, from the Meramec Regional Planning Commission, details some of the statistics and concerns about the shortfall of these services in rural areas and what the Department of Economic Development hopes to change with this “mission critical” issue.

According to an MRPC account of their June 13 meeting with Tim Arbeiter, director of Broadband Development with the DED, 1.04 million rural Missourians are without access to broadband internet.

According to Arbeiter, Missouri’s broadband initiative is “mission critical.” 

Missouri has the seventh most diversified economy in the nation. Agribusiness is a key strength for Missouri and represents an $88 billion industry, supporting 400,000 workers on over 1,000 farms covering 28.3 million acres of lands. The industry struggles with a lack of access to high speed internet capabilities. 

In 2018 USDA Agriculture Census, there were 27,000 farms reporting no internet connection. Arbeiter reported that Missouri House Bill 1880 became law on Aug. 28, 2018, making broadband a “statewide imperative.”

MRPC noted a recently published Purdue University study scored the state and counties on their Digital Divide Index (DDI) based on broadband access and adoption and the state’s socioeconomic factors. A value of 100 denoted the highest digital divide.

The Meramec Region — which includes Gasconade and Maries counties sits just above Missouri’s 55.46 DDI value at 57.04. Maries County has the highest DDI with a score of 80.25. Pulaski County has the lowest DDI with a score of 18.43.

Arbeiter made these points as the next steps to take to address this issue.

• Promoting the broadband plan and implementing the strategies identified such as connectivity, digital literacy, homework gap and training workers;

  Launching the broadband grant program, a $5 million fund in the state budget dedicated to addressing the broadband issue, in late summer 2019;

• Publishing tools and surveys that can be utilized in broadband planning efforts by communities, counties or regions; and, 

• Establishing a regional framework for planning efforts.

The second item we received this week was a piece from Eric Bohl of the Missouri Farm Bureau which details efforts from that agency to help improvement internet services in the rural areas.

Bohl, who directs public affairs and advocacy programs for Missouri Farm Bureau, shared an overview of comments made by that group’s president, Blake Hurst, during a July 11 Congressional hearing on the need for greater broadband connectivity. His testimony before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture emphasized how modern agriculture requires data to thrive, noted Bohl.

“The vast technological advances broadband can bring to rural America would be an enormous boon for the economy,” Bohl writes. “A U.S. Department of Agriculture study shows that widespread broadband could boost the agricultural economy by about $64.5 billion.”

Hurst, a farmer himself, was introduced by Missouri Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler. She is the only Missourian on the Agriculture Committee and was instrumental in inserting a provision into the 2018 Farm Bill defining high-speed broadband as 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. This ensures tax dollars will go towards true broadband deployment, not glorified dial-up service, Bohl noted.

He goes on to noted “Connected technologies can help farmers use resources in a more targeted manner. Existing technologies like cloud-connected planters, irrigators, tractors and harvesters can automatically change application rates for seed, fertilizer and more. This precision is good for the land, enabling farmers to use data to apply less water, protect soil health and precisely plant seeds.”

Hurst is quoted as testifying, “After we collect this data, we must transfer it from our machines to the company who writes our ‘prescriptions,’ share it with our partners who supply our seed, and eventually utilize it when making crop insurance and other business decisions. Transferring this data, which is essential to the future success of every farmer, requires access to fast, reliable and affordable broadband.”

Hurst also told the committee, “From monitoring feed usage and rations to scheduling delivery of animals, livestock farmers use broadband daily to improve the efficiency of their operations and ensure the health of their herds…All the data collected can be compiled into production reports which help farmers make more informed decisions about their farm and ranch.”

Bohl concludes noting, “Many in Congress have recognized rural America’s broadband needs, including many of Missouri’s own representatives. Yet much more needs to be done. As President Hurst said in his testimony, ‘Rural broadband (fixed and mobile) is essential to modern agriculture, the farmers and ranchers who grow our food and the quality of life for rural Americans. Broadband is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity.’”

Former Gov. Jay Nixon touted the need for improved internet services in Gasconade County years ago when the word “Internet” was still capitalized. It’s time for all the years of planning and talk to finally connect all Missouri’s rural communities with the world wide web.


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