COLUMBIA — Access to high-speed Internet is a right — not a privilege — for hospitals, schools, businesses and residents statewide.
That was the position of speakers at Friday's Rural Broadband Forum. There, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Julius Genachowski, chairman for the Federal Communications Commission, discussed the need for greater Internet access in Missouri's rural areas and various challenges facing that expansion.
Internet access in rural areas remains low because service providers have little financial incentive to serve remote, sparsely populated parts of the state. Last year, Missouri ranked 39th nationally in Internet download speed; according to a 2007 report, approximately one-fifth of Missourians live in areas without high-speed Internet access.
Areas without sufficient high-speed Internet access are getting left behind, McCaskill said at the forum. Students in those areas miss out on educational opportunities, emergency responders struggle with communication and commerce and job creation is hindered by slow Internet connections.
Expanded Internet access has long been a topic of concern for various levels of government. The federal stimulus package, enacted in February 2009, included $7.2 billion for state broadband programs; in July 2009, Gov. Jay Nixon announced the creation of MoBroadbandNow, a program focused on competing for those funds and then creating "a fiber-optic broadband backbone" for statewide broadband Internet access by 2014.
Last March, the FCC announced its own proposal to drastically change national broadband policy in order to increase access for underserved areas and to make current connections faster. But the FCC is still assessing what level of access it can provide "without busting the budget," Genachowski said at the forum.
Providers assert that though great strides have been made to give Americans greater broadband access — nearly 300 million Americans now have access, compared to approximately eight million in 2002 — government funding is needed to reach others in harder-to-reach rural areas.
Should the government fund broadband service for rural areas?