A bill to expand rural high-speed internet access is making a run through the Missouri Senate after having cleared the House.

The proposal from Republican Representative Delus Johnson of St. Joseph would establish a grant program within the Department of Economic Development to expand broadband to unserved and under-served parts of Missouri.

The grants would provide 50% funding to build infrastructure that would offer internet download speeds of at least 10 megabits per second and an upload pace of no less that one megabit per second.  The grants could work with matching federal funding of 50%.

According to Representative Johnson, the legislation would work to achieve 90% coverage in the state and then seek to improve broadband speeds to underserved areas.

An unserved area is anyplace in Missouri where broadband access isn’t available.  Johnson says geographically 61% of the state is unserved right now, which impacts about a million people.

He says the 10-megabit download/1-megabit upload requirement is set to meet the standards set forth in two Federal Communications Commission (FCC) broadband grants that are available.

At a Senate committee hearing on his bill, Johnson projected that $2 billion in FCC broadband grants would be available soon.  He said the state grants would be based on money the legislature chose to appropriate for them.

A major stumbling block for delivery of broadband to unserved areas is the cost of getting it to those consumers, who are typically in rural locations.  Unserved areas lie in geographic spots that are often referred to as the “last mile” of internet infrastructure.

Johnson says he’s received estimates showing the cost of installing fiber-optic lines that provide at least the 10-megabit download/1-megabit upload times is $8,000 per mile.  But he said delivery of faster speeds could cost up to $22,000 per mile.

Richard Telthorst, President of the Missouri Telecommunications Industry Association (MTIA) spoke at the Senate’s panel hearing which went before the chamber’s Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and the Environment Committee.

Telthorst thinks it’s important that any broadband grant program does not exclude any provider or any available technology from being funded.  “It really ought to be open to everyone who’s got the capability to provide service, whether that be a telecom carrier, a cable company or an electric co-op, or whoever else might be eligible,” said Telthorst.

He warned that focusing on faster speeds in the grant program will cost more money and ultimately end up covering fewer unserved areas.

Telthorst said a possible solution to that issue would be to install a system that guarantees 10-megabit download/1-megabit upload times which could then be upgraded to produce faster speeds in the future.

He further said it would be important to avoid directing any state grant money to any of the numerous broadband expansion programs already in place that are receiving federal dollars, contending it would be a poor use of state funds.

Representatives for several other organizations who weighed in at the Senate committee hearing also said grant money should be reserved for projects that aren’t already subsidized.

The $1.3 trillion congressional omnibus bill to fund the government this year includes an additional $600 million for broadband expansion.  Telthorst thinks the state grant program that would be established by Johnson’s proposal would be in a perfect position to tap into the influx of those federal dollars.

“If we have this grant program already in place, that’s a wonderful way to attract those dollars to Missouri,” Telthorst said.  “Without the program in place, perhaps those dollars will go elsewhere.”

The FCC uses census blocks, the smallest geographic unit by which the FCC organizes data it collects from households, to establish the availability of broadband.

A problem with misrepresentation arises because a census block is determined to be served if any residents inside have access to broadband.  Telthorst suggested the problem can be dealt with by adding language to Johnson’s proposal that designates unserved areas within a census block.

Johnson has said his proposal is nearly identical to a program currently operating in Minnesota to expand broadband access.  BJ Tanksley, a representative from the Missouri Farm Bureau, says the state will have put a priority on faster speeds if it wants to keep up with download/upload goals set by Minnesota.

“We’ve been talking about 10/1 and 25/3 (in Missouri),” said Tanksley.  “Their state broadband goal (in Minnesota) is for everyone to have access to 100/100 by 2025, which isn’t that far out if you really think about it.  So, when we talk about speeds, we’re talking on a pretty low end compared to what other states are setting as goals.”

Daryl Dewey with the Missouri Cable Telecommunications Association echoed the sentiment that higher speeds need to be a focus of any broadband expansion program.

“To talk about the digital divide between urban and rural, well if you subsidize the build-out of 10/1 and everybody else is on a gigabit, you still have that same divide, said Dewey.  “You can’t operate a business on 10/1.”

Doug Galloway representing internet service provider CenturyLink said flexibility in broadband speeds should be written into the legislation.

“We can craft this so that it says if the federal government increases the speeds and provides funding, then this would automatically match that,” said Galloway.  “So, you’re not going to have a situation where you’re going to fund 10/1 and two years from the FCC wants to fund 25/3.  Then you come back and have to change this law.”

According to BroadbandNow, Missouri ranks 42nd in the United States for broadband access.

Justin Arnold, General Counsel of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said his organization supports the broadband expansion proposal, contending it would provide widespread benefits across rural Missouri.

“From our perspective, you’d see a broad impact on all sectors of the economy, not just small businesses and households, but health care and agriculture,” Arnold said.

No one spoke against Johnson’s bill to establish a broadband grant program in the Senate hearing.  The measure has time to make it through the legislature, depending on the attention it’s given by Senators during the final month of the current session.