NEOSHO, Mo. – A proposal to seek federal and state grants to expand broadband service in rural southwestern Missouri has drawn representatives from local governments and utilities, among others, for talks initial Thursday evening.
County commissioners from Jasper, Newton and McDonald counties, representatives from cities like Joplin and Carthage, and rural telephone and broadband service providers were among those in attendance to hear the results of a broadband study conducted. by a hired consultant, Rural Innovation Strategies Inc. of Vermont. .
The company was hired by local sponsors to study the area and advise community leaders on how they could access federal and state grants to expand Internet service. These sponsors are the County Governments of Leggett & Platt, Newton and Jasper, the MOKAN Regional Partnership, the Joplin Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Arvest Bank, the Town of Neosho and Crowder College.
Chett Daniel, Director of Institutional Research at Crowder, has worked on initiatives related to community and economic development. He said that one of the important discussions that took place at a spring workshop is how broadband service has become essential for community development.
“People are choosing where to live now, even in a community where they will choose which neighborhood they want to live in, depending on what broadband service may or may not be available. It used to be when someone was buying a house, they would ask, “What schools will my children go to?” “,” Said Daniel. “Now what they’re asking now is ‘Does this house have high speed internet?'”
The need to provide reliable high-speed internet and to extend fiber optic lines to more areas in cities and counties to connect those areas to internet service became more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic when people and the students were working from home, Daniel said.
Crowder wanted to help keep the broadband conversations going because “we certainly know that the stronger our communities, the better we can meet their educational needs. If we can convene a conversation with people who have the ability and the means to explore the paths forward, that was Crowder’s role in all of this, ”Daniel said.
He added that Arvest Bank executives who were at the spring meeting called for more discussions on the state of internet access in Southwest Missouri and how the region could tap into those. broadband grants that will be available under the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Alex Kelley, Broadband Advisory Manager for Rural Innovation Strategies, gave attendees an overview of the availability of broadband services in counties.
He said Jasper County has many underserved areas and Newton County has fragmented service areas. McDonald County has large undeveloped areas where there is no service.
Zones present several challenges in connecting more people. One is low income which could be a barrier to connecting people who do not have subsidized service. Another is the expense involved in installing miles of fiber optic cable over rocky, hilly terrain. These factors could deter attracting service providers unless they can be assured of a large number of customers.
Mark Rakes, director of marketing and consumer services for New-Mac Electric, a rural electric co-op that serves parts of the three counties, said New-Mac had previously researched the finances and customer base that would be involved in a venture to to add the broadband service.
“We did the cost estimate, and the estimate was too unrealistic,” said Rakes, especially when local telephone companies have already invested millions of dollars and extended fiber for their broadband services. He said New-Mac does not want to risk its electrical services business, nor does it want to compete with its neighboring companies or encroach on their service territories.
Instead, New-Mac would rather help other community partners and existing broadband service providers expand their services, Rakes told the group.
There were a number of questions about how much money would be available from grant sources, who would lead the effort to identify grant opportunities, whether counties should work independently or as a region, and who would be responsible for the grant money, if any, obtained.
These are all issues for future discussion, the session organizers said.
Kelley said grant amounts have yet to be determined and it will be up to participants to identify who should lead future efforts and decide how counties and municipalities move forward.
Rural Innovation Strategies spoke with local representatives of the state of broadband and past discussions in the region as part of the study.
“We also looked at a lot of things specific to this area, from the regulatory environment to who the potential partners might be, from phone companies to Internet service providers and power companies. We also looked at federal data on what the internet speeds were “in the region and what programs the region might be eligible for,” Kelley said.
“I see very promising seeds of collaboration. It was great to know what the phone companies are doing now and that they are all looking to the future, they are all investing in their network, they are all deploying fiber, “Kelley said.
“All of the public sector leaders who were here wanted to be part of a solution, so to have such a broad coalition, from the power companies to the telephone companies to the public sector, all lined up, who had to participate and row in the same. direction, this is very promising, ”said Kelley.