Missouri’s broadband director says while the state is making progress on broadband, there’s a long way to go. Broadband office development director Tim Arbeiter testifies that Missouri now ranks 32nd nationwide for broadband access, an increase of nine slots.

State Rep. Louis Riggs (R-Hannibal) speaks on the Missouri House floor in Jefferson City on March 4, 2021 (file photo courtesy of Tim Bommel at House Communications)

Director Arbeiter testified Thursday in Jefferson City, before the newly-appointed House Special Interim Committee on Broadband Development. Committee chairman Rep. Louis Riggs (R-Hannibal) says there are still 392,000 Missourians who lack high-speed internet, either because it’s not available or they can’t afford it. That number is down from 587,000 in 2018.

“The hopes (for the interim committee) are that we find basically a path forward in terms of what do we need to do legislatively to get there, what do we need to do as appropriators to get there,” Riggs says.

Chairman Riggs and Director Arbeiter say infrastructure and accountability are barriers to access, saying 23 percent of Missouri’s students lack access to high-speed internet.

Arbeiter testifies that Missouri ranks in the bottom five for access to low-cost internet, and that only 55 percent of Missourians have access to a low-cost internet plan. Riggs says affordability is a major issue.

“I talked to an individual in my district who had a WiFi hot spot from a provider, it was really good stuff, unlimited data. It was rather pricy, he got the letter (that) 30 days from now we’re going to orphan you, sorry about that,” says Riggs.

Riggs says the man now has to drive to town, to do his work. Arbeiter says a public awareness campaign is underway about federal grants residents can apply for. It’s designed for residents who struggle with connectivity.

Missouri’s broadband development office was created in 2018 by the state Departments of Agriculture (MDA) and Economic Development (DED). The office’s aim is to accelerate deployment of broadband in Missouri.

The office’s creation was a top priority for Missouri Farm Bureau, the state’s largest general farm organization.

Director Arbeiter says the state has distributed more than $22 million in state CARES Act funding to health clinics, libraries, schools and to higher education. He testifies that $4 million has been distributed to 38 health clinics across the state, for thousands of hotspots.

“We partnered with the University of Missouri School of Medicine to help with hot spots for health care clinics. So that was about, just a little over 10,000 hot spots were purchased through MU, through the Missouri Telehealth Network,” Arbeiter testifies.

Governor Mike Parson announced a $50 million project to expand broadband across the state, last July. The $22 million is part of that project.

As for Chairman Riggs, he hosted a town meeting on Friday morning in northeast Missouri’s Palmyra, to hear from internet providers and from residents about the area’s broadband needs. One of his constituents is MDA director Chris Chinn.

“She has a hog production facility in the Clarence area. She has going to McDonald’s in Macon, WiFi hotspot, to download medical records, vet records on sick hogs,” Riggs tells Missourinet.

Riggs says the committee will meet monthly through the end of the year. He wants to hear from internet providers in August. All of the hearings will take place in Jefferson City.

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