Broadband access in Missouri took center stage at an MU engagement week session at the Holiday Inn Executive Center on Thursday morning. Despite federal and state funding going toward expanding broadband in Missouri, many areas are still facing difficulties due to a lack of reliable internet access.

Marshall Stewart, MU vice chancellor for extension and engagement, called broadband access “one of the most important needs of the state.”

“We can have a strong economy, healthcare and education,” Stewart said, “But we can’t have it if we don’t figure out a way to put broadband high-speed internet into every community, every school, every place in the state of Missouri.”

Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe told the audience that two of the governor’s top priorities are infrastructure and workforce development, both of which are connected to access to broadband.

Kehoe said there are 10 schools in the state that don’t have any broadband access, and even more that have unreliable internet connections. During sessions and a video that told the stories of Missourians who live in communities without broadband, parents discussed having to take their children to local businesses or family members’ homes so that they can complete homework.

Kehoe said the lack of access leads to inequities. “There’s no reason why a child who lives three blocks from school should be able to do better than someone who lives three miles from school,” he said.

Zora Mulligan, Missouri commissioner of higher education, said during a panel discussion that the state has a goal that by 2025, 60% of Missouri residents will have some sort of post-secondary credentials. Combined with the need to increase online class offerings from the UM system, broadband access is a critical part of reaching those goals.

Chris Chinn, director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture, talked about how increasingly dependent farmers are on technology and the internet. From the vehicles and software used for crop production to livestock records, farmers use the internet for every part of their work, Chinn said.

Chinn and her husband are fifth-generation farmers in Shelby and have had issues accessing the internet they need to keep their farm running smoothly.

“It’s just really frustrating,” Chinn said. “Because you think of that time that you could be giving hands-on care to your livestock, but instead, you’re in a vehicle going in town to rob internet from someone who’s gracious enough to let you borrow it.”

Because of the increasing reliance on technology, Chinn offers training to farmers in using the latest tools.

“We teach them how to use new technology,” Chinn said. “Then they get back to the farm, and they can’t access it.”

Chinn said the lack of rural broadband access makes farmers less willing to stay in Missouri, a sentiment echoed by Kehoe during his speech.

Herb Kuhn, president and CEO of the Missouri Hospital Association, spoke about the importance of internet access in health care. As rural counties continue to have fewer and fewer hospitals, many communities rely on telehealth for care, Kuhn said.

And when health care professionals are available in an area, the lack of broadband makes their jobs more difficult.

Kehoe lives on a gravel road in rural mid-Missouri. His neighbor, a World War II veteran, has in-home nursing care through Veterans Affairs, and Kehoe has seen firsthand how the lack of internet impacts their work.

“When one of those day-care nurses comes to my neighbor’s house, I meet her at the top of the hill on the road going out,” Kehoe said, “because that’s where she found a cell signal to be able to transmit her data.”

Thursday’s workshop was the fourth in the UM System Engagement Week that will come to a close Friday. The event celebrates systemwide efforts to connect university research and resources to communities to improve Missouri’s economy, health and education, according to previous Missourian reporting.

At the end of Thursday’s session, Stewart presented a “Truman award” to Blake Naughton, associate vice chancellor for extension and engagement, and announced that Naughton would be taking over as the vice president of engagement and extension at Colorado State University.

Chancellor Alexander Cartwright presented T-shirts for everyone in attendance that read, “University FOR Missouri.”

Supervising editor is Mark Horvit.

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