KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced a $50 million statewide investment in broadband internet services Thursday during a briefing in Jefferson City.
The pandemic highlighted the need for such access in WiFi deserts across the state, especially as it relates to access for education and telehealth, state officials said.
“We know some weaknesses we had during this time,” Parson said.
The $50 million in grant money will come from the state’s portion of federal CARES Act funding, Missouri Department of Economic Development Director Rob Dixon said.
“Broadband internet is the backbone of our economy,” Dixon said.
Four programs will be part of Missouri’s new broadband initiative, including $20 million for broadband internet providers who have worked to rapidly expand networks during the pandemic and another $20 million earmarked for elementary and secondary schools as well as colleges and universities in Missouri.
To meet state requirements for funding, providers must guarantee speeds of at least 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads, which is the current FCC definition for broadband internet service.
Additional details of the initiative for education will be announced next week, according to Parson.
The Missouri Telehealth Network, which is a partnership with the University of Missouri School of Medicine, will receive $5.25 million.
That money will be used for 12,000 hot spots that can be distributed to federally qualified health care facilities and community mental health centers in Missouri.
The WiFi-enabled devices will be available for checkout to clients based on need or low connectivity, according to Missouri Office of Broadband Development Director Tim Arbeiter.
Much of the focus in Missouri has been on bringing broadband to rural areas, but the program also will include urban areas where broadband access is lacking.
Arbeiter said there are “pockets all over the state that reside in unserved or underserved” broadband deserts.
He said 90,000 Missouri citizens could not access medical care due to lack of internet access as facilities were shut down during the pandemic.
Similar issues were noted with school closures, which left some students struggling to participate in virtual education.
“The intent is to close that gap for students who couldn’t experience that online learning," Arbeiter said.
Overall, the state estimates that 300,000 households, including 195,000 school-age children, and 54,000 businesses and farms in Missouri lack adequate broadband coverage, according to a release from Parson’s office.
Another $2.5 million will be available for libraries in communities lacking adequate broadband resources to shore internet services, particularly for health and education needs.
Missouri also applied for a $615,000 grant for a pilot project to help with additional planning for expanding broadband access, which would be funded through the U.S. Economic Development Administration.