UPDATE: Missouri firms getting $66M for rural Internet

Wednesday, August 18, 2010 | 12:02 p.m. CDT; updated 2:19 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 18, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — The federal government awarded an additional $66 million of grants and loans Wednesday to expand high-speed Internet access in rural northern Missouri.

Various Missouri entities now have been allotted $218 million of federal stimulus funds to plan and build telecommunications networks that can carry high-speed Internet across rural areas and into homes, businesses, schools and libraries.

Gov. Jay Nixon said pending grant applications could raise that amount.

A 2007 study by the Missouri Public Service Commission found about one in five Missouri households lacked either cable modems or high-speed DSL lines. But in communities with fewer than 25,000 residents, about two out of every five households lacked high-speed Internet.

A $45.1 million grant to Columbia-based BlueBird Media will help build 809 miles of high-capacity fiber cables and 44 microwave towers to carry high-speed Internet in the northern half of Missouri, Nixon said. It also will help fund Internet access to about 350 "community anchor points," including 213 public schools, 10 community colleges, 30 health care facilities and 60 public safety entities, Nixon said.

Additional network extensions would need to be made — either by BlueBird Media or local communications companies — to provide the final few miles of high-speed Internet wires to the roughly 600,000 homes and 57,000 businesses in BlueBird Media's 59-county coverage area.

In addition to the grant from the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Missouri is providing $10.5 million worth of right of way use along state roads and BlueBird Media is chipping in $9.1 million.

The government aid should allow high-speed Internet to be made available at a lower cost to consumers, said BlueBird Media partner Otto Maly, though he offered no particular pricing details.

Also Wednesday, the Agriculture Department's Rural Utilities Service said that United Electric Cooperative will receive a grant of $14.8 million and a loan of $6.4 million to build a last-mile network for high-speed Internet to about 4,200 homes and businesses in six northwest Missouri counties.

The United Electric project includes Internet connections to 33 schools, 38 health care facilities, 31 public safety entities and five libraries.

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