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$1.7 billion award makes universal broadband a reality


Uriah Orland

With groundwork in place thanks to a state, regional and University of Missouri System partnership, broadband access is expanding across Missouri.

Aug. 9, 2023

Last winter, University of Missouri staff and faculty in 34 counties helped residents submit 186 challenges to the Federal Communications Commission broadband coverage maps. Counties in Missouri organized challenge events at MU Extension offices, sharing internet connections and walking community members through the online process.

These maps were used to calculate Missouri’s share of approximately $42 billion in federal funds recently awarded to expand internet access across the nation. Their accuracy was vital.

The state Office of Broadband Development estimates an additional $810,000 value from those 186 challenges alone.

“It’s a great example of hands-on, local work with a big impact,” said Alison Copeland, UM System deputy chief engagement officer, who has helped lead and coordinate the UM System Broadband Initiative since its inception in 2019.

This is just one example of how UM System universities, researchers, faculty and staff are helping to bring broadband to Missourians in every part of the state.

“In 2019, in partnership with the state government, we committed to connecting all 114 counties in Missouri with the goal of bringing people together to pursue education, make advances in technology and build partnerships to stimulate economic development,” said Michael Williams, chair of the UM Board of Curators. “The UM System Broadband Initiative has been instrumental in helping us accomplish this and we are truly improving the lives of all Missourians.”

Today, universal broadband access is closer to reality thanks to Missouri’s historic award of $1.7 billion through the federal Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program — the third largest in the nation. An additional $24 million in digital equity funds will assist under-represented groups— including rural, elderly, veterans, formerly incarcerated, racial and ethnic minorities — with access and adoption.

“Ten years from now, Missourians will look back at this time and wonder how anyone ever lived without broadband,” says BJ Tanksley, director of the state Office of Broadband Development. “Like rural electrification more than a century ago, universal broadband will become a given in every corner and community in the state.”

Leaders across the state credit a strong partnership with the UM System and Missouri’s 19 regional planning councils for providing an effective roadmap, Tanksley said. Their coordinated plans showed Missouri’s readiness to start broadband infrastructure projects and help people develop the skills they will need to engage with this vital tool for work, health and educational opportunities. 

“Broadband access and adoption are central to the advancement of priorities like the NextGen Precision Health initiative and access to educational opportunities to strengthen Missouri’s workforce and grow the State’s economy,” said University of Missouri President Mun Choi. “The combination of our four universities — including MU’s land-grant mission — puts us in a strong position, bringing together the right people to advocate for and transform this essential infrastructure that benefits all Missourians.”

UM System contributions to the successful award include: 

  • The Missouri Internet Survey Report: The report, authored by Alan Spell with MU Extension Exceed, analyzed over 7,500 completed surveys from a random sampling of Missouri households in spring of 2023. The survey sought input from all Missourians and gathered responses from smaller populations whose voices can be underrepresented in surveys and have been disproportionately impacted by digital inequity, including low-income households, veterans, rural inhabitants and racial and ethnic minorities.

  • Fall 2022/Spring 2023 Outreach and Listening Tour: With the 19 regional planning councils, MU Extension State Engagement Specialist Noah Washburn and UM System Consultant for Broadband Initiatives Joe Lear facilitated 23 meetings in fall 2022 and 20 meetings in spring 2023 to gather grassroots information about people’s and communities’ broadband needs across the state.

  • MU Center for Applied Research and Engagement Systems (CARES): CARES developed interactive data maps that help with broadband affordability assessments by county, census tract or by an MU Extension region. A broadband vulnerability “footprint” tool identifies “hotspots,” areas of opportunity, areas at varying degrees of need, and gaps in data related to broadband access across Missouri.

    An interactive Digital Asset Map collects and catalogues digital assets around the state of Missouri. Users can learn about access and use of digital assets available near them — including services, programs, workshops and equipment. 

  • Climate Study on Broadband Infrastructure: This study by Fengpeng Sun at the University of Missouri–Kansas City and MU’s Patrick Market projects ways to ensure construction and placement of broadband infrastructure that take into account future climate conditions.

“Even before there was a state Office of Broadband Development, the UM System was doing great work in promoting connectivity and working directly with communities on this issue,” Tanksley said. “This historic funding was just a great opportunity to bring our office and the work that had already been done together to move forward in a really smart way for Missouri.”

UM System Broadband History

The UM System’s broadband focus evolved from MU Extension’s 2016 statewide listening sessions, said Chad Higgins, MU vice chancellor for extension and engagement.

“We recognized as we listened to people in communities across Missouri that broadband access and adoption have become central to improving lives and addressing challenges they were identifying around agriculture, the economy, education and health and well-being,” Higgins said.

Since 2019, the UM System Broadband Initiative has aligned researchers, economists, extension specialists and state, regional and community leaders across Missouri with state leadership in the Office of Broadband Development. Groundwork efforts included:

The Missouri Broadband Resource Rail which offers a searchable database of public, private and nonprofit community resources and an extensive online library of relevant documents.

A 2020 pilot workshop in Bollinger County yielded an actionable plan for the county, with many of the findings and steps applicable to other areas of Missouri.

MU Extension’s rural economic development program, Exceed, documented the 10-year economic benefits in Bollinger, Henry and Nodaway of increased access to and adoption of broadband-based applications such as e-commerce, online learning and telehealth.

No one-size-fits-all solution exists for connecting communities to high-speed internet. To address that challenge, a five-county northwestern Missouri region piloted the Digitally Connected Community Guideprocess. Developed by the UM System Broadband team, the process helps communities tailor broadband access and adoption plans to their specific circumstances — putting them in a position to apply quickly for broadband funding as grant application periods open.

“It’s going to take a lot of hard work and continuing partnership,” Tanksley said. “But we now have the funding like we would never have dreamed of before for broadband. Together, we really are going to be able to make a change for Missouri.”

Reviewed 2023-08-09