JEFFERSON CITY — A proposal to improve broadband access would create a grant system to fund service expansion in rural areas of Missouri.
The bill, which had its first hearing Wednesday, would establish the Missouri Rural Broadband Development Fund. The fund would provide matching money to companies or entities that wish to enter communities without broadband access.
Rep. Delus Johnson, R-St. Joseph, wrote the bill in response to a special report of broadband in rural areas published by the Missourian in early January.
Broadband, also known as high-speed internet, is important for business growth, agriculture, education and telemedicine services. Without reliable broadband, rural areas are falling behind.
Johnson proposed different legislation in 2011 and 2012 that would have authorized a tax credit for the cost of the broadband equipment, but failed. He said that this bill is a more permanent solution.
“The initial bill we were working on was basically only going to allow this in rural areas in second (and) third-class counties,” Johnson said. “This is going to open it up to every single county in the state, because there are first-class counties — like Jefferson, St. Louis, Jackson — that are underserved, so we didn’t want to eliminate those first-class counties.”
Johnson said the bill isn’t written to “step on toes” of service providers that administer high-speed internet services in rural areas of Missouri.
“We want to make sure that we don’t overlap services, and one of the priorities is going to be to bring broadband into an area that doesn’t have it,” Johnson said.
“If there is a broadband provider in that area, and someone comes in with a grant and they want to try to increase the speed, we’re going to give the (Missouri) Department of Economic Development the opportunity to possibly have a challenge period, because we don’t want to replicate services.”
If created, the Missouri Department of Economic Development would accept applications, Johnson said, which would give preference to neglected areas. Areas that have limited services like telemedicine or educational institutes with weak broadband access would be given priority.
He also said the department will give preference to a group that might have private funding “already locked in for the match,”according to current wording in the bill.
Earlier this month, Gov. Eric Greitens’ administration announced that the Department of Economic Development plans to hire a rural broadband manager to serve as a liaison between the federal, state and local agencies involved in regulating broadband.This position will also work to strengthen public-private partnerships to improve broadband across Missouri, according to previous Missourian reporting.
Johnson said this position will not interfere with what his bill is trying to create for the state.
“We certainly look forward to working with that position,” Johnson said. “I think this is going to be the next step — having an advocate position for the expansion of broadband throughout the state.”
An unofficial state work group,the Missouri Broadband Initiative, recommended creating a central entity to run the state’s broadband efforts. The work group used Minnesota as an example, which has created a state broadband office. Johnson said the bill he is proposing mirrors Minnesota legislation that has proven successful .
The fiscal year 2019 budget, which Greitens released Monday, would allocate $6 million to continue funding an initiative that provides fiber optic broadband service to rural public schools. Greitens began this initiative in April 2017.
Johnson said the funding for the proposed grant system would come mainly from general revenue.
“If the money’s not there, it’s not going to be appropriated,” Johnson said. “But if the money is there, we are looking at an economic development investment. It’s going to create jobs, expand education, expand online training, allow rural businesses to thrive.
“I think when we come down to the appropriations side of this, I think this is going to be an appropriation that is definitely going to return on its investment.” Johnson did not offer a specific amount for the fund.
At a hearing for the Special Committee on Innovation and Technology on Wednesday, lawmakers and representatives of telecommunication and technology industries showed enthusiastic support for the bill. Those in support included Missouri Farm Bureau, Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives, Missouri Cattlemen’s Association and Missouri Chamber of Commerce.
Other comments were given by the Missouri Telecommunication Industry Association, Missouri Small Telephone Group and CenturyLink.
Doug Galloway, who represents CenturyLink, told the committee that rural communities typically do not financially support broadband coverage with the highest speeds. He also suggested that the committee not duplicate existing networks.
Johnson said the goal is to “get this thing to the governor’s desk as soon as we can.”