Gov. Mike Parson announced Thursday that $50 million will be used to improve high-speed internet across Missouri.
The money, which comes from the federal CARES Act, will be specifically allocated toward education and telehealth resources that have become critical during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Missouri Department of Economic Development estimates that 300,000 Missouri households, 195,000 K-12 students and 54,000 businesses and farms do not have access to high-speed internet.
“Improving Missouri’s digital infrastructure is essential to the resiliency of our economy in this pandemic and beyond,” Rob Dixon, the director of the department, said in a statement. “By providing these essential resources, we are better able to work toward economic recovery, and help Missourians prosper.”
The $50 million will be divided across several initiatives:
- Helping broadband providers build high-speed internet access to underserved and unserved communities.
- Facilitating distance learning in K-12 and higher education.
- Connecting vulnerable communities to telehealth resources.
- Creating a grant program to improve internet access in Missouri libraries.
Broadband providers and libraries that want funding will need to apply on the department’s website. Applications are due July 22 for providers and July 31 for libraries.
Along with the allocation, Parson signed House Bill 1768 Thursday to extend the Missouri Broadband Grant program to June 30, 2027. The program, originally set to expire in 2021, helps build essential broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved communities.
In addition, HB 1768 states that any recipient of Missouri’s grant program must return the funds if they are unable to provide adequate broadband services, defined as minimum download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 Mbps.
The grant program was created in 2018 to improve Missouri’s limited access to broadband, especially in rural areas. A special report by the Missourian found that Missouri ranked low in connectivity and broadband speed when compared to other states.
Missouri’s access to high-speed internet has improved in the last year. The percentage of Missourians with inadequate broadband decreased from 16.5% in 2018 to 11.3% in 2019, according to the 2019 Federal Communications Commission’s Broadband Deployment Report. The report, however, still showed that over a third of rural Missourians do not have access to high-speed internet.
In March, the department gave 16 awards to broadband providers across the state, totaling $3 million. The extended grant program and CARES Act funding will target communities still lacking broadband, said Tim Arbeiter, the director of Missouri’s Broadband Development Office.
Parson said such improvements to broadband infrastructure will help bridge the digital gap in Missouri.
“The digital divide in rural Missouri limits growth in many sectors of our economy, including education, workforce development, healthcare, business retention and attractions,” Parson said. “And now, with the challenges posed by COVID-19, access to high-speed broadband is more important than ever.”