JEFFERSON CITY – A Connect All Missourians summit will begin Tuesday with a series of speakers, including Gov. Mike Parson, to discuss the challenges and solutions to high-speed Internet connectivity in Missouri.
Missouri is currently planning funds to launch the statewide Connecting All Missourians tour, but will receive the bulk of the funding for the five-year plan within nine months.
The amount of funding will depend on the obvious need for high-speed Internet in Missouri, which BJ Tanksley of the Missouri Department of Economic Development doesn’t think will be a problem.
“Unfortunately, there are many areas in Missouri that need broadband,” Tanksley said. But this does not mean that we will receive significant funds.”
The Connecting All Missourians tour kicks off in downtown Missouri to inform Missourians about upcoming programs and gather feedback on Missourians’ internet issues.
It will last six months in total:
- Travel around different regions of the state for about eight weeks
- Southeast Missouri, Central Missouri and Northeast Missouri
- Virtual contact with each location for about two months
- One last look at spring
In total, there will be two full stages of the tour.
Once completed, feedback from Missourians will ultimately define the five-year plan and secure the necessary funding. However, Tanksley says he might have a better idea with the multi-millions expected in about three to four months.
“We need to hear from Missourians about their day-to-day lives so we can build a solid plan and then invest those funds wisely,” Tanksley said. “Ultimately, the goal is to unite all Missourians.”
He also said that funding would be divided within the United States based on need, making it difficult to determine how much would be given to the state.
Currently, $265 million in America’s Rescue Plan Act funding is available for broadband infrastructure development. This includes Missouri’s Digital Investment Plan, which offers Missourians monthly discounts on internet service through a federal program called the Emergency Broadband Benefit. Eligible households can receive $30 to $50 per month from their internet bill until the program runs out of funding.
“It’s something that people can use right now, digital capital kind of takes it to the next level,” Tanksley said.
Programs slated for future funding are the federal Broadband Capital, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program and the Digital Efficiency Act (DEA), both of which seek to connect unserved and underserved Missourians. BEAD funds infrastructure projects through competitive grants, so the state will again provide infrastructure funding through competitive rounds with a focus on underserved areas. DEA will fund affordable devices, affordable connectivity, and/or skills training for online learning, receiving health care, or working from home.
Tanksley says high-speed Internet is an important part of the economy because the past few years have seen more people working from home than ever before. He also said broadband issues have been a concern for some time, but he thinks COVID-19 has also shed light on the issue.
“When everyone was forced to stay home, we said, ‘Hey, there are people who can and people who can’t,'” Tanksley said. “And we really want to close that gap.”
Tanksley said funding is currently available for the places that make the most sense for ISPs, so additional funds are needed to reach other areas.
“That’s what we want to remove, whether it’s physical connectivity or other barriers to digital capital, to make sure all Missourians can fully engage in the digital economy,” he said.
About 100 people are expected to attend Tuesday’s event. The summit will take place at the Missouri Farm Bureau headquarters 701 South Country Club Drive in Jefferson City, 9:30 a.m. virtual selection is also available online.