Senator McCaskill and Blunt are continuing their push for better broadband coverage in rural areas, meeting with representatives of Missouri Electric Cooperatives this week in Washington, D.C..
McCaskill addressed the coops representatives to discuss the importance of investing in the state’s rural broadband infrastructure and the role they can play in connecting Missourians.
McCaskill and Blunt are in agreement that access in rural areas has to improve.
Blunt said access to broadband is an issue that impacts virtually every Missourian. It’s critical for students to do their homework, businesses to grow, hospitals to treat patients, and farmers to meet growing world food demand. In 2018, it’s unacceptable that more than 50 percent of rural Missourians currently lack access to broadband.
The government spending bill, which was signed into law last month, provides $600 million for a new rural broadband pilot grant and loan program. This program will target areas that do not have access to broadband, and includes provisions to prevent overbuilding.
As a member of the Commerce Committee, Blunt has pressed the need to expand rural broadband, noting that an increasing number of farmers are utilizing wireless infrastructure, GPS, data centers, autonomous systems, and fiber optics for precision agriculture and high-speed commodity trading.
“Missouri’s small towns and rural communities can grow and thrive with access to reliable broadband internet—but without it, small businesses can’t compete, students aren’t able to access learning resources, and essential health services go undelivered,” McCaskill said. “Missouri’s electric co-ops were critical in providing electricity to rural Missouri—and I’m eager to work with them to now connect those same communities to high-speed internet.”
McCaskill has introduced the Community Broadband Act, which would improve internet access in rural areas by protecting the rights of communities to build municipal broadband networks.
At the start of 2018, amid controversies involving net neutrality decisions brought forth by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, another access initiative was put into place to expand broadband access to rural Missouri. The FCC reports that over 105,500 rural homes and businesses in Missouri are currently underserved by high-speed internet access. These areas will now become part of the FCC’s “Connect America Fund” (CAF), which will be used to distribute funds through what they are calling “reverse auction” methods and is scheduled to launch on July 24.
This auction style funding will see nationwide providers compete for up to $2 billion in rural expansion support.
Republican U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (MO), a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, has been a significant proponent of this initiative. In January 2017, Blunt joined a number of his Senate colleagues in sending a bipartisan letter to President Donald Trump regarding the importance of broadband, and expanding access in rural areas, as part of any infrastructure legislation Congress and the administration may consider. This helped to kickstart the funding initiative by the FFC.
As of March 12, Republican Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler (MO-04) introduced H.R. 5213, the Expanding Rural Access to Broadband Act, which makes necessary changes to existing Rural Utilities Service (RUS) telecommunications programs to ensure rural Americans aren’t left behind in the digital age.
This push looked to expand on internet infrastructure already in place to increase economic opportunities and improve rural quality of life. This bill requires RUS programs to report back to Congress on ways to incentivize private infrastructure investments to streamline application programs. It would also raise the minimum standard for internet speeds, going from the current minimum of 4 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload to a baseline of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.
State initiatives are looking to put a national provider in charge of the bid, making a portion of these issues easier with more personnel. However, with $2 billion in funds coming from the auction, it will be uncertain for some time whether or not this will be enough to achieve the goal set forth.