It’s exciting to talk about an issue where the stars seem to have aligned, momentum is building and there is genuine optimism among rural Missourians. Imagine an issue where government is a player but success will be achieved only if the private sector sees themselves as partners.
Missouri Congressman Jason Smith recently hosted a meeting highlighting efforts to make high-speed, affordable broadband available to people regardless of whether they reside in West Plains or Westport. The comments of his special guest, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai, should go viral. A native of Parsons, Kan., (population 10,500) Chairman Pai embraced his rural roots and called for a comprehensive plan to promote broadband for all Americans. He indicated his first speech to FCC employees noted his desire to address the “digital divide” where winners and losers are determined based on where they live. His comments came across as heartfelt, and he listened intently to the stories of area residents who are benefitting from access to broadband and the missed opportunities of those in areas where it is unavailable.
The group heard of area medical facilities using broadband to promote telehealth, farmers using the technology to take advantage of precision agriculture and rural electric cooperatives that have taken out large loans to expand broadband service to members. Missouri Director of Agriculture Chris Chinn shared her daughter’s disappointment when she returned home from college where connectivity is excellent to find poor cell and internet service. A local official shared a compelling story of losing potential manufacturers due to the lack of reliable, high-speed broadband.
Chairman Pai seems to recognize the stakes are high. He likened the situation to the 1930s when President Roosevelt called for the electrification of rural America. It was an enormous but necessary task, a situation not unlike what we face today. Chairman Pai recognized progress will not come easily and depends on tools that include the availability of federal funding and regulatory reform. The possibility of a large infrastructure package and support of measures allowing access to existing infrastructure will no doubt speed the process.
At the state level, representatives of virtually all entities involved in the broadband discussion met in July to begin developing a digital road map. Sen. Roy Blunt, Gov. Eric Greitens, Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst, University of Missouri Vice Chancellor for Extension and Engagement Dr. Marshall Stewart, Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives President Barry Hart and Missouri Telecommunications Industry Association President Ric Telthorst came together to promote access to affordable broadband during a press conference at the Missouri State Fair.
Unfortunately, reliable cellular and broadband service is still not available in some rural areas. But we’re on the right track, and all Missourians will benefit from the ongoing efforts of our elected, industry and academic leaders.