More than a million Missourians don’t have internet, but Colombia’s problem is reliability

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COLUMBIA, MO (KMIZ)

About 20% of Missouri — about 1.26 million people — lack high-speed internet access, according to a study by the University of Missouri Extension. But even those with internet access may not experience quality or reliable service.

The MU extension studies broadband access in the state.

The extension’s vice-chancellor, Marshall Stewart, said access is only part of the picture.

“It’s one thing to be connected, it’s another to have the bandwidth you need and it’s another to know how to use it,” Stewart said.

Most of those without reliable service — more than a million — live in rural areas, but even in metropolitan areas, like Columbia, access isn’t always reliable.

One of the challenges when looking at broadband access is determining who has it and who doesn’t. The Missouri Broadband Division under the Department of Economic Development, with assistance from MU Extension, is attempting to map where service is available in the state.

“This is one of our biggest challenges,” said manager BJ Tanksley. “That grossly overstates the service.”

Missouri Department of Economic Development broadband coverage map

The most recent gap analysis shows that 400,000 areas in Missouri lack high-speed Internet access. Stewart said internet access is more than a luxury these days, it’s a necessity.

“One of the things that’s happened over the last two years is obviously the pandemic, and it brought to light something that we already knew, that people needed access to improve their lives, and the companies, to be able to provide high quality education in remote areas, for example,” said Stewart.

Subsidy programs to develop broadband

The Tanksley office is accepting applications for grants to extend fiber broadband. Fiber is the most reliable way to access the internet currently available, but it’s expensive for businesses unless they can justify the cost.

“Broadband is expensive to deploy, so we hope our funding will help close that gap,” Tanksley said.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are given to businesses, local governments or non-profits for fiber expansion; $265 million to expand broadband infrastructure and $20 million to build cell towers. The money is part of the American Rescue Plan Act, federal funds to be used to address issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Projects must cost a minimum of $100,000 and a maximum of $10 million. Socket Telecom is receiving $5 million to expand fiber networks in northern Boone County.

The Tanksley office is accepting applications for projects in areas where there is a need.

“You’re talking to a lot of people who have service or not quite reliable service, those areas are going to be eligible for our funding for providers to then bring services to them,” Tanksley said. “We don’t just rely on the map, we also allow them to prove ‘yes it is’ or ‘no it isn’t’.”

University of Missouri Broadband History Map

Columbia’s Broadband Problem

Local governments can apply for the Broadband Grant Program, but the City of Columbia is not. However, residents of the larger central Missouri metropolitan area complain of unreliable access.

Nancy Berry complains that she had no choice of Internet service provider.

“As Ward 3, we only have one choice, and that’s Mediacom,” Berry said. “We charge what they want because there is no competition.”

A Medicom representative disputed this assertion. “We have NO fluctuation in monthly prices…and the part of a customer service bill that has grown the LEAST over the years, by far, is the broadband part,” the spokesperson said.

Socket, Mediacom, and CenturyLink are a few of Columbia’s many providers, but because laying fiber is difficult and expensive, they don’t cover all of Columbia’s neighborhoods.

“As it’s competitive in other areas, I don’t understand why it’s not competitive in our area,” Berry said.

Software developer Bruce Alspaugh served on Columbia’s broadband committee, which disbanded in March. He said ISPs wouldn’t share, even with the city, the neighborhoods they cover because they didn’t want their competitors to know.

“The broadband situation in Colombia is a bit of a tale of two cities,” Alspaugh said. “It depends on what part of town you live in, what kind of service you get.”

ABC 17 News received an email that Councilman Pat Fowler shared with Alspaugh about the possibility of applying for grants for the city to develop broadband.

City Manager De’Carlon Seewood told Fowler that the city would not apply for grants: “Since the city is not in the provider business and the task force recommendations indicate that the city should not being in the area, we are not currently working on applying for a broadband subsidy.”

Asked about the email and the grants, Fowler said: “Until we are able to extract information from the city manager’s office about what the city grantmaker has been working on and the funding opportunities he or she is aware of specific to broadband, I have no details to share.”

The city’s solution

A 2014 report from consulting firm Magellan identifies that Colombia lacks widespread, reliable and affordable broadband internet. According to the report, 87% of businesses in Colombia say their internet service is insufficient. CarFax moved its data headquarters to another city in part due to connectivity issues.

The report proposes a solution: an integrated community broadband network. The advantages of the lines listed in the report are the possibility of a public Wi-Fi network and extended government services, such as the distribution of emergency information.

In order to build the community broadband network, the report recommends the creation of an open access network that would act as a public service. As part of the plan, the city would install fiber optic lines that broadband providers would lease when requested by customers.

“Open access will promote competition by allowing users to access multiple providers on Columbia’s network; increasing choice and creating greater price competition among service providers,” the report said.

“But it also gives customers more choice,” Alspaugh said. “So if the #1 company that leases the fiber doesn’t do the job, then the customer can choose the #2 company.”

“But it also gives customers more choice,” Alspaugh said. “So if the #1 company that leases the fiber doesn’t do the job, then the customer can choose the #2 company.”

The plan was never implemented because city leaders could not agree on it. A broadband committee has been formed with Alspaugh as chairman, Karl Skala as council liaison and representatives from broadband companies as voting members.

“The initial line of thinking we had was to bring in the suppliers that we have on the committee and give them a chance to vote on the recommendations and so on so that we can try to come to some sort of agreement,” Alspaugh said. “But we ran into a problem because the companies just weren’t interested. They want to protect their own turf.”

The committee disbanded in March after city officials decided it was a financial conflict of interest to have internet service providers as voting members.

“My recommendation would be that we restart this committee, but this time we have average and ordinary citizens,” Alspaugh said.

Alspaugh is expected to speak at a Columbia City Council business session on the possibility of restarting the committee, this time without the internet service providers.

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