JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – About 20% of Missouri’s population does not have high-speed internet access, according to the Federal Communications Commission, but lawmakers plan to use millions of federal dollars to expand broadband across the ‘State.
The state’s education department said one in five students did not have internet access at home. Under the federal infrastructure bill signed by the president last week, more than $ 1 million is earmarked for the state to expand broadband in Missouri.
Economists told lawmakers in a four-hour hearing that if increasing high-speed internet access was not addressed soon, young Missourians would leave the state.
“If we don’t have a top-level service there, we’re going to lose them – and the pandemic has taught us that,” co-founder of AgriExperts and the Dynamic Econometric Economic Development Program at the University of Missouri (DEEDP) Abner Womack testified before lawmakers on Monday.
House committee chairman Rep. Louis Riggs (R-Hannibal) asked Womack and co-director Keith Eisberg what the two economic experts recommend?
“What would be your recommendation on how to integrate these different data points into an overall strategy? Riggs asked.
COVID-19 exposed Missouri’s digital divide after employees were forced to work from home and schools closed.
“Missouri, we lack broadband where people stay at home, work from there, kids can do their homework at home,” Eisberg said.
The concern is not only to increase access, but also to be affordable.
“Another problem we have is the lack of access in terms of affordability,” Riggs said. “Speed is something we know to be a critical issue, we’re as low as 49th in the last two years.”
Missouri is expected to receive a minimum of $ 100 million to improve broadband, which will provide Internet access to more than 330,000 Missourians.
Lawmakers have previously said they are also prepared to spend the COVID relief money to increase access, but economists have said they must have a plan.
“Get the money, and it goes to someone. We want to be able to project it before they get it, where they think they could be, ”Womack said. “It’s not a one-year kind of thing. You’re going to end up 10 years here on all of us when that money comes out. “
Eisberg said the best way for the state to get more money is to prepare for the statistics and find out what is needed.
“They are going to demand states to do exactly what we just did in this project here, mapping and economics,” Eisberg said.
The state’s economic development department is looking for a new director of broadband development after director Tim Arbeiter left on January 7 to enter the private sector.
Between the governor’s office and the state’s education department, there is currently an additional $ 450 million in COVID relief dollars intended to increase internet access.
The Riggs committee last met on Monday before lawmakers returned in January for the session. The committee will now table a report with its findings to the General Assembly.
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