Thursday, December 1, 2022

Digital Beat

On December 1, 2022, the U.S. Treasury approved Missouri’s plan to dedicate all of its Capital Projects Fund allocation to extend the reach of broadband in the state. 

Agriculture is Missouri’s leading economic driver. Over 95,000 farms employ nearly 400,000 people, export more than $2.5 billion across the globe, and make economic contributions to the state of $88.4 billion. Missouri is second in the number of farms in the United States and ranks in the top 10 nationally for the production of eleven different agricultural products. While the agriculture industry is undergoing a technological revolution, Missouri farmers have limited access to broadband-enabled tools. Research from the University of Missouri found that, on average, farmers with access to high-speed internet that implement precision agriculture technologies can experience a 6 percent increase in revenue. Applying this impact model to Missouri’s farms could yield up to $291 million annually in additional agricultural revenue. This increase in revenue to Missouri’s farmers and ranchers will have a cascading effect in driving more profitable operations—leading to re-investment in their farms and ranches, and the purchase of new equipment and materials which will support the surrounding communities with job opportunities, consumables, and charitable contributions. In addition to the positive impacts on revenues, the full-scale usage of precision agriculture will reduce the consumption of certain inputs and decrease costs.

Missouri’s Digital Divide

In 2019, Missouri estimated that 20 percent of the state’s population (1.26 million people) lacked access to high-speed internet. Nearly 83 percent of those people lived in rural areas. Two years later, the state reported progress on closing the digital divide, but still has a long way to go: 23 percent of Missouri students lacked broadband access, and 44.8 percent of Missourians lacked access to a low-cost internet plan. 

But Missouri’s digital divide is not limited to rural areas. Nearly half of households in St. Louis City and County are impacted by at least one aspect of the digital divide: either coverage, service quality, service affordability, device affordability, or digital literacy. Service affordability affects 70–75 percent of the region, most prominently in the city and north county where poverty is pervasive: 

  • 160,000 people in St. Louis City and County live below the poverty line.
  • 22 percent of St. Louis City residents live below the poverty line, with some neighborhoods in north City near or above 50 percent, and some portions of north County as high as 44 percent.
  • These neighborhoods are disproportionately Black and have suffered historically from disinvestment.

Missouri Broadband Plan

In 2019, Missouri identified rural broadband deployment as a top infrastructure goal and prioritized activities to achieve universal access to high-speed Internet, with speeds of at least 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 20 Mbps upload, for all Missouri citizens by 2028. Missouri’s broadband plan set two milestones in its journey to universal broadband:

  • Ensure access to broadband speeds of at least 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload for 95% of households and businesses by 2025.
  • Realize a household broadband adoption rate of 92% by 2027.

Missouri also adopted three principles to guide every program, initiative, and activity undertaken as part of its broadband plan:

  1. Embrace all technologies that can deploy high levels of broadband service.
  2. Encourage a team-based approach from public and private stakeholders to engage in all levels of deployment efforts.
  3. The delivery of resources and programs to unserved and underserved areas of the state will have a customer-centric approach, utilizing data-driven decision-making, not be duplicative where sufficient service exists, be open and transparent, and complement regional priorities.

Missouri’s plan set five objectives for the state’s efforts:

  1. Increase Broadband Data Collection and Utilization: Missouri created broadband adoption and coverage maps utilizing existing data sets available from the FCC, USDA, Census Bureaus, and other available data sources.
  2. Accelerate Broadband Infrastructure and Access: The state launched the Missouri Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program designed to leverage public/private partnerships to connect the unserved and underserved areas of the state.
  3. Leverage Partnerships to Accelerate Broadband: The state encourages localized broadband planning teams to establish goals, engage all stakeholders and providers, choose organizational models, and create a culture of shared responsibility for universal broadband work.
  4. Increase Broadband Adoption and Awareness: Although programs to address the affordability of broadband services exist from private carriers and the federal government, Missouri realized such services needed to be inventoried and communicated to the public.
  5. Promote Efficiencies and Opportunities in Broadband Development: The Missouri Office of Broadband Development serves as conduit and facilitator for public and private entities to share best practices, efficiencies, and lessons learned from past deployment efforts.

Missouri Broadband Programs

The Missouri Broadband Grant Program was created in 2018. The focus of this grant program is to provide state resources that help providers, communities, counties, and regions invest in building broadband infrastructure in unserved (lacking access to 10/1 service) and underserved areas (lacking access to 25/3 service) of the state. Applicants eligible for grants awarded include:

  • Corporations, or their affiliates, registered in this state;
  • Incorporated businesses or partnerships in this state;
  • Limited liability companies registered in this state;
  • Nonprofit organizations registered in this state;
  • Political subdivisions; and
  • Rural electric cooperatives.

In April 2020, 16 broadband development projects received a total of $3.05 million to bring service to more than 4,400 Missouri homes, businesses, and farms that lack access to high-speed internet. 

On July 2, 2020, Governor Michael Parson (R-MO) announced the Rapid Broadband Deployment Initiative to accelerate connectivity and improve resiliency for Missourians affected by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Six programs were created within the nearly $50 million Rapid Broadband Deployment Initiative. 

The Emergency Broadband Investment Program provided $5 million in grants to reimburse providers that expanded, or planned to connect, high-speed internet (25 Megabits per second / 3 Megabits per second or greater) to new subscribing residents in unserved or underserved areas in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Providers used funds to assist with construction costs for new broadband expansion to households with teleworking citizens, students, or vulnerable populations. 

Missouri and Federal Broadband Funding

In recent years, Missouri has made use of a number of federal funding opportunities to extend broadband’s reach in the state.

USDA’s Reconnect Program

In January 2020, six broadband providers received support in the first round of the ReConnect Pilot Program totaling $103 million:

  • GRM Networks, headquartered in Bethany, received $41 million in grant and loan assistance to connect 2,288 locations including homes, farms, and businesses.
  • Total Highspeed Internet, headquartered in Nixa, received $40.26 million in grant and loan assistance to connect 8,683 households, 12 educational facilities, one healthcare center, and eight critical community facilities.
  • Green Hills Communications, headquartered in Breckenridge, received $2.58 million in grant assistance to connect 546 households, two educational facilities, and one critical community facility.
  • Gascosage Electric Cooperative, headquartered in Dixon, received $14 million in grant and loan assistance to connect 1,177 households and two critical community facilities.
  • Mid-States Services, headquartered in Trenton, received $3 million in loan assistance to connect 566 households, one educational facility, and one critical community facility.
  • Marshall Municipal Utilities, headquartered in Marshall, received $1.15 million in grant and loan assistance to connect 763 households, one educational facility, and one healthcare facility.

In the second round, an additional five projects in Missouri won $94.5 million in support:

  • Total Highspeed Internet, headquartered in Nixa, was awarded a $24.9 million ReConnect grant and a $24.9 million ReConnect loan. These funds will provide a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 26,077 people, 720 farms, 417 businesses, nine fire stations, and five public schools to high-speed broadband internet in Christian, Greene, Lawrence, Stone, and Webster counties.
  • Stoutland Telephone Company, doing business as (DBA) Missouricom and headquartered in Stoutland, will use a $4.6 million ReConnect grant to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 2,390 people, 78 farms, and 12 businesses to high-speed broadband internet in Dallas, Camden, and Laclede counties.
  • Steelville Telephone Exchange, DBA STE Communications, headquartered in Steelville, received a $14.8 million ReConnect grant and a $14.8 million ReConnect loan. As a result, STE Communications will deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 4,756 people, 314 farms, 55 businesses, two fire stations, and a post office to high-speed broadband internet in Iron, Dent, Crawford, and Washington counties.
  • Marshall Municipal Utilities, headquartered in Marshall, received $1.15 million in grant and loan assistance to connect 763 households, one educational facility, and one healthcare facility.
  • Big River Broadband, headquartered in Cape Girardeau, will use a $2.9 million grant to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) network to connect 4,839 people, 54 farms, 27 businesses, two public schools, and one fire station to high-speed broadband internet in Cape Girardeau County.

Rural Digital Opportunity Fund

Thirteen providers and 4 consortiums won $346.3 million to expand access to 199,211 locations in Missouri. 

CARES Act

Missouri distributed over $22 million in CARES Act funding to improve connectivity including:

  • $8.3 million in awards to higher education facilities to expand distance learning,
  • $7 million to K-12 schools to expand campus Wi-Fi,
  • $4 million to distribute 10,045 hotspots to 38 health clinics, and
  • $2.4 million to 26 projects to connect 2,500 homes with gigabyte internet access service.

American Rescue Plan Act 

Missouri plans to deploy more than $400 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to increase broadband internet access, adoption, and assistance statewide. The Department of Economic Development is addressing these three core areas with ARPA-funded broadband programs that will make historic investments in this critical part of our state’s infrastructure.

On December 1, 2022, Treasury approved Missouri’s plan to use the state’s full $196.7 million Capital Projects Fund allocation for broadband infrastructure. The state estimates that the support will help connect 37,979 households and businesses – representing approximately 8 percent of locations still lacking high-speed internet access. Missouri’s award will fund the Missouri Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program, a competitive grant program designed to fund broadband infrastructure projects in areas that currently lack access to high-speed, reliable broadband. The program focuses on bringing service to areas where broadband infrastructure projects would not be feasible without assistance. The Missouri Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program, housed in the Missouri Department of Economic Development, is designed to provide internet service with speeds of 100/100 Mbps symmetrical to households and businesses upon project completion. Each of the internet service providers funded by the program will participate in the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) – a $30 per month subsidy for qualifying households. 

Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act & Connecting All Missourians

The Office of Broadband Development will carry out an extensive public engagement process as it plans for its Connecting All Missourians programs. These programs will be funded under the Digital Equity Act (DEA) and the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, both part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The engagement is to inform the state’s plans for spending more than $100 million toward broadband deployment and more than $20 million toward addressing non-infrastructure barriers to full participation in the digital world.

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Originally Appeared Here