Cole, Callaway counties lag in internet access, speeds

There are pockets of Mid-Missouri that are unserved and underserved for their broadband internet needs. Large swaths of Cole and Callaway counties could soon be joining them.

As the federal and state governments pour funding and resources into broadband infrastructure development, updates to standards could shed more light on who has adequate access to the internet and who doesn’t.

Cole and Callaway counties are largely served regions of the state, according to 2020 Federal Communications Commission data and the Missouri Broadband Development Office. Households in the two counties have access to at least three wireline or fixed wireless internet providers with download speeds of at least 25 Mbps and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps.

Significant portions of the two counties could be considered underserved, however, under new definitions proposed in legislation working through the Missouri House.

HB 2675, sponsored by Rep. Louis Riggs, R-Hannibal, changes the state definition of communities underserved by broadband providers to be areas with internet upload and download speeds less than 100 Mbps.

That’s the standard the federal government is moving toward, Riggs said, and Missouri needs to have the same standards so technology isn’t outdated by the time it can be fully deployed and used by consumers.

Riggs leads the House Special Committee on Broadband and Infrastructure after steering the House Special Interim Committee on Broadband Development, which completed its 500-page report in January.

There are an estimated 150,000 households currently considered to be unserved or underserved in Missouri, according to the report, which is nearly 400,000 people without access to the state minimum 25/3 internet speeds. Missouri is ranked 32nd in access, according to the report.

Rep. Travis Fitzwater, a Holts Summit Republican who served with Riggs on the interim committee last year, said broadband expansion is a crucial issue for Callaway County, Mid-Missouri and the state.

He said the issue comes up in messages from constituents at least once a quarter.

“I have constituents that get in touch with me often and say we either don’t have access to this and we need it or we’re terribly underserved and we need options, and I completely agree,” Fitzwater said. “For kids, businesses and individuals in our state, we should do the best we can to expand coverage everywhere we can.”

Fitzwater said broadband issues span urban, suburban and rural areas of the state, which is part of the reason it’s become a priority for the federal government, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and local municipalities.

Fitzwater said there are portions of Callaway County that are doing well, but constituents in other areas are “very concerned” about their access to the internet.

“And Callaway County is not unique,” he said. “This is all across the state where you have pockets of really good service and then right across the street you have nothing.”

There are several barriers to expanding broadband in Callaway County, Fitzwater said, such as higher costs to develop in rural areas, tougher terrain and long project timelines for companies who have secured public funding to build in rural areas.

Those long project timelines can deter other providers, he said, because some companies see it as a competitive disadvantage to try to develop broadband infrastructure in areas another company has received federal or state dollars to develop.

“There may be people waiting longer than they hoped when federal dollars have been promised or state dollars have been promised,” Fitzwater said.

Wisper Internet announced last week it was building a new wireless broadband tower to serve the Taos community in neighboring Cole County.

The new tower is part of a $2.3 million commitment Wisper has made to Cole County through the Federal Communication Commission’s Connect America Fund. The internet provider received its first round of the federal funds in February 2020.

Wisper has existing towers in Jefferson City and Eugene, and has four more in design for Lohman, Centertown, Jefferson City and Honey Creek. The company offers fixed wireless internet service in rural communities across the Midwest. The new towers are capable of upload and download speeds ranging 25-400 Mbps.

As more parts of the state gain more options and access, Fitzwater said the most pressing objective is to identify areas of the state that are unserved and find cost-effective ways to reach them.

“I think you start there and then you figure out who’s underserved and then you just prioritize who you want to spend the dollars on from a fiscally conservative perspective, not just throw dollars at the problem,” Fitzwater said.

He said he would count on the state broadband office to identify those unserved and underserved areas, but it can use methods already implemented in other states.

Minnesota, for example, divided its state into regions and targeted them one at a time through a grant program. Fitzwater said he’d like to see a similar plan of attack in Missouri and is confident one will emerge from the state broadband office soon.

Riggs has introduced legislation this session that would create several new task forces to study broadband deployment around the state and make recommendations for how to support those efforts.

He’s also carrying a bill that would authorize local governments to form broadband infrastructure improvement districts to contract with internet providers for service, which could be funded by grants, loans, bonds or user fees.

Fitzwater said Riggs is an incredible advocate for finding broadband solutions in Missouri, describing him as a “bulldog on a bone.”

“I’m really proud to kind of walk alongside him as he kind of leads those efforts in the state,” Fitzwater said.

Fitzwater sponsors a bill this session that would allow broadband internet providers to use certain electrical infrastructure systems to provide services.

In talking with community leaders, Fitzwater said broadband infrastructure expansion is high up on the list of priorities for local governments around Mid-Missouri.

“They all want their kids and their employees and their businesses to be connected to the internet,” he said. “I mean, you have to be in 2022.”

Fitzwater said gaps in internet access need to be taken care of quickly because it impacts children’s ability to participate in school, how entrepreneurs can start a business and how those businesses operate.

“I think we’re all working toward, on a bipartisan level, efforts to close those gaps,” he said.

Click the link below to read the full bill:

• HB 2675: Broadband grants

Sponsor: Rep. Louis Riggs