By Eric Bohl
Poor internet speeds remain a huge problem in rural Missouri. Many still lack access to connectivity, even if they were willing and able to pay any cost. Over the past year, Missouri Farm Bureau has worked toward finding solutions to this persistent problem, bringing together hundreds of leaders in government and industry to identify the causes and propose answers.
On January 8 in Nashville, Donald Trump became the first sitting U.S. President in 25 years to speak to the American Farm Bureau Federation Annual Convention. Following his speech, President Trump signed an executive order to help deploy rural broadband by easing the process to put private broadband infrastructure on federal property.
In practice, President Trump directed the General Services Administration (GSA) to create simple form contracts for internet infrastructure leases on federal property and directed agencies to quickly approve requests unless it would directly hurt the agency’s mission. While siting data transmission hardware on federal property is helpful and the order was a welcome announcement, the White House called the step “incremental” and noted that total rural broadband infrastructure needs are estimated at $80 billion.
The numbers show that poor broadband infrastructure is a more acute problem in Missouri than most states. 2016 FCC Broadband Progress Report found that 61 percent of rural Missourians did not have access to broadband internet, while only five percent lacked access in urban areas. This puts Missouri in 42nd place for rural connectivity. In fact, Missouri is one of only three states with more than one million rural residents lacking access to broadband internet, trailing only Texas and California – the two most populous states – in raw numbers.
To follow the momentum of President Trump’s announcement, Missouri can take some simple steps to help rural Missourians get internet access. Strategic Networks Group’s 2017 50 States of Broadband report found that 52% of states had a dedicated office of broadband. Eighteen of the top 20 states in the report’s overall ranking have a dedicated office of broadband.
Missouri does not have any coordinating office and has not had anything resembling one since former Governor Nixon’s MOBroadbandNow initiative wound down several years ago. The lack of unified direction has been a major problem for infrastructure deployment. Governor Greitens and the state legislature should work together to create an effective broadband office. The cost of a coordinating office would be minimal, if any, as current resources could be reallocated and tasked with this unifying mission.
Rural Missouri needs action on broadband infrastructure. We appreciate President Trump recognizing the importance of these needs and moving in the right direction, but we need much more action from all levels of our elected officials, and much more private investment in infrastructure, solve this prolonged problem.