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More than 1 million Missourians lack internet but the issue in Columbia is reliability


About 20% of Missouri -- about 1.26 million people -- does not have access to high-speed internet, according to University of Missouri Extension research. But even those who have access to the internet may not have quality or reliable service.

The MU Extension studies broadband access in the state.

Extension Vice Chancellor Marshall Stewart said access is only part of the picture.

"It’s one thing to be connected, it’s another thing to have the bandwidth that you need and then it’s another thing to know how to use it," Stewart said.

Most of those without reliable service -- more than 1 million -- live in rural areas, but even in metropolitan areas, such as Columbia, access is not always reliable.

One challenge when looking at broadband access is mapping who does and doesn't have it. Missouri's Broadband Division under the Department of Economic Development, with the help of MU Extension, attempts to map where service is available in the state.

"That's one of our biggest challenges," Director BJ Tanksley said. "It does largely overstate service."

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Screen-Shot-2022-03-02-at-11.20.05-AM.png
Broadband coverage map from the Missouri Department of Economic Development

The most recent gap analysis shows 400,000 areas in Missouri without high-speed internet access. Stewart said internet access is more than a luxury these days, it's a necessity.

"One of the things that’s happened in the last couple of years is obviously the pandemic, and it brought to light something that we already knew, that people needed access to improve their lives, and businesses, to be able to deliver high-quality education in remote areas, for instance," Stewart said.

Grant programs to expand broadband

Tanksley's office is accepting applications for grant money to expand broadband fiber. Fiber is the most reliable way to get internet currently available, but it's expensive for companies to lay unless they can justify the cost.

"Broadband is expensive to deploy, and so we’re hoping that our funding helps bridge that gap," Tanksley said.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are being given to companies, local governments or nonprofits for expanding fiber; $265 million to expand broadband infrastructure and $20 million to build cell towers. The money is part of the American Rescue Plan Act, federal funds to be used to fix problems that were exacerbated by the pandemic.

The projects have to cost a minimum of $100,000 and a maximum of $10 million. Socket Telecom is receiving $5 million to expand fiber networks in northern Boone County.

Tanksley's office is accepting applications for projects in areas that show a need.

"You talk to a lot of people who have some service or not quite a reliable service, those areas are going to be eligible for our funding for providers to then bring service to them," Tanksley said. "We don’t simply just rely on the map, we also then allow them to prove 'yes, it is' or 'no, it’s not.'"

University of Missouri broadband story map

Columbia's broadband problem

Local governments can apply for the broadband grant program, but the City of Columbia is not. However, residents of the largest metropolitan area in Central Missouri complain of unreliable access.

Nancy Berry complains she was not given a choice of internet provider.

"We as Ward 3 have only one choice, and that’s Mediacom," Berry said. "We’re charged whatever they want because there’s no competition."

A Medicom representative disputed that claim. "We do NOT have fluctuation in the monthly pricing … and the piece of a customer service bill that has risen the LEAST over the years, by far, is the broadband piece," the spokesperson said.

Socket, Mediacom and CenturyLink are a few of the many providers in Columbia, but because laying fiber is difficult and expensive, they don't cover every neighborhood in Columbia.

"Since it’s competitive in other areas, I don’t understand why it’s not competitive in our area," Berry said.

Software developer Bruce Alspaugh sat on Columbia's broadband committee, which dissolved in March. He said the internet providers would not share, even with the city, which neighborhoods they cover because they didn't want their competition to know.

"The broadband situation in Columbia is a bit of a tale of two cities," Alspaugh said. "It depends on which section of town that you happen to live, the quality of service that you get."

ABC 17 News received an email City Councilperson Pat Fowler shared with Alspaugh about the possibility of applying for grants for the city to expand broadband.

City Manager De'Carlon Seewood told Fowler the city would not be applying for grants, "Since the City is not in the provider business and the recommendations of the task force indicate the City should not be in the business, we are currently not working on applying for any broadband grant funding."

When asked about the email and grants, Fowler said, "Until we are able to pry some information out of the city manager’s office about what the city’s grantwriter has been working on, and the funding opportunities that he or she is aware of specific to broadband, I do not have specifics to share."

The city's solution

A 2014 report by consulting firm Magellan identifies that Columbia lacks widespread, reliable and affordable broadband internet. According to the report, 87% of Columbia businesses report their internet service is insufficient. CarFax moved its data headquarters to a different city in part because of connectivity issues.

The report suggests a solution: an integrated community broadband network. The benefits of the lines as listed in the report are the possibility of a public WiFi network and expanded government services, such as the distribution of emergency information.

In order to form the community broadband network, the report recommends creating an open-access network that would act as a public utility. Under this plan, the city would install fiber lines that broadband providers would lease at customers' request.

"Open-access will promote competition by allowing users to access multiple providers over Columbia's network; increasing choice and creating greater price competition among service providers," the report says.

"But it also gives customers more choice," Alspaugh said. "So if company No. 1 that’s leasing out fiber isn’t doing the job, then the customer can go and pick company No. 2."

"But it also gives customers more choice," Alspaugh said. "So if company No. 1 that’s leasing out fiber isn’t doing the job, then the customer can go and pick company No. 2."

The plan was never put into action because city leaders could not agree on it. A broadband committee was formed with Alspaugh as the chair, Karl Skala as the City Council liaison and representatives from the broadband companies as voting members.

"The initial line of thinking that we had was let’s get the providers that we have on the committee and give them a chance to vote on recommendations and so forth so we can try to come to some sort of agreement," Alspaugh said. "But we ran into a problem because the companies were just not interested. They want to protect their own turf."

The committee dissolved in March after city officials decided it was a financial conflict of interest to have the internet providers as voting members.

"My recommendation would be that we restart that committee, but this time we have average, ordinary citizens on it," Alspaugh said.

Alspaugh is expected to speak in a Columbia City Council work session about the possibility of restarting the committee, this time without the internet providers.

Article Topic Follows: Special Report
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Hannah Falcon

Hannah joined the ABC 17 News Team from Houston, Texas, in June 2021. She graduated from Texas A&M University. She was editor of her school newspaper and interned with KPRC in Houston. Hannah also spent a semester in Washington, D.C., and loves political reporting.


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