As most of you know, Missouri ranks 41st in broadband access – 20% of our state’s population can’t connect to high speed internet. That’s 1.26 million Missourians in 2020 who are going without health care appointments, virtual education opportunities, business transactions, telecommuting options and the vital human connections we’re all craving during this pandemic.
About a year ago, during Extension and Engagement Week, the UM System launched an ambitious effort to increase the sense of urgency around providing affordable access to high-speed internet for all Missourians, including the formation of the Broadband Leadership Team which serves to explore and advance the university’s role in improving broadband access throughout the state. Little did we know in that pre-COVID-19 moment that just a few months later, a pandemic would raise the stakes for us.
I’m proud to say that in 2020, both because of and in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, our state has made progress toward connecting more Missourians than ever to essential opportunities and services. The Broadband Leadership Team has engaged partners from academics, industry and community to achieve a few key milestones this year.
The Missouri Broadband Resource Rail, developed in partnership with SourceLink and the Center for Applied Research and Engagement Systems (CARES), is a resource navigator that provides a systematic way to find and organize tools and partners in support of community efforts to learn about broadband and expand access. Launched in July 2020, the resource rail is now home to hundreds of resources to support local efforts to enhance broadband connectivity.
In July 2020 the Broadband Leadership Team hosted the “Bringing Broadband to a Missouri Community” workshop in Bollinger County, Mo. Facilitators invited community leaders, government officials, industry partners with legal and financial experience, non-profits and others to explore the challenges and assets needed to improve broadband access in Bollinger County. The workshop resulted in an actionable plan for that county, with many of the findings and steps applicable to other areas of Missouri. The summary report and plan have a permanent home in the Missouri Broadband Resource Rail.
Bringing the benefits of broadband to a community requires planning, partnerships and perseverance – and a concise guide doesn’t hurt. The Broadband Planning Guide, set to launch in the spring of 2021 will combine the findings and steps in the plan with the power of community data from CARES to create a step-by-step process for community members to develop an RFP for partners and services as they work to enhance and expand broadband connectivity in their areas. You can follow the progress of the guide’s development in the Story Map linked above.
And as only MU Extension can do, we have activated our statewide network of specialists to serve as resources sharers, connectors, collaborators and leaders in broadband initiatives in the communities in which they serve.
Supporting plans and initiatives at the community level requires funding for time, infrastructure and technology. Thanks to funding at the federal and state level, broadband expansion projects in Missouri have received at least $290 million in 2020 alone. The USDA ReConnect program funded two rounds of proposals this year which will connect 15,000 people, 135 farms and 100 business, plus educational facilities, health care facilities, public schools and a fire station. The FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund invested $176 million to help connect nearly 70,000 Missouri residents and businesses. And Governor Mike Parson committed $50 million in CARES Act funding to expand broadband infrastructure in support of telehealth and distance education.
Casey Canfield, assistant professor of engineering management and systems engineering at Missouri S&T and member of the Broadband Leadership Team says that broadband is critical infrastructure for economic development in rural communities and that there is evidence suggesting that giving people internet access will improve the economy. We know that broadband access is critical to the advancement of our state’s priorities, like NextGen precision health, a 21st century workforce and access to education and opportunities that further support our economic prosperity.
Though we’ve made progress, we have much more to do. We have valuable partnerships with Missouri Farm Bureau, the Departments of Agriculture and Economic Development, and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce to name a few. I encourage each of you to explore the Missouri Broadband Resource Rail, follow the development of the Broadband Planning Guide and share these resources with others in your networks. We may not be building the physical networks, but we can convene the people to advocate, innovate, fund and protect this essential infrastructure for the people of our state.
Marshall Stewart, Ed.D.
Chief Engagement Officer, University of Missouri System
Vice Chancellor, MU Extension and Engagement