Monday, January 08, 2018

Missouri School of Journalism's small daily takes a deep dive into how the lack of broadband hurts rural Mo.

Slow, spotty or absent internet service is a known problem in rural areas, but a story package from The Columbia Missourian brings it into sharper definition, saying "Lack of reliable access to the internet manifests itself in ways that touch on nearly every aspect of life."

Missouri ranks comparatively low in connectivity and broadband speed. "In many cases, people are left with speeds of only 0.5 Mbps," or megabytes per second, Dylan Jackson reports. "Forget Netflix or music — with those speeds business owners can’t keep their stores operating, residents sometimes can’t send email. That leaves some Missourians looking for expensive alternatives, such as checking into hotels so they can access Wi-Fi to operate their online business."

One story addresses how the lack of broadband hurts farmers, who "rely on internet access for up-to-date information on everything from crop prices to wind patterns. Data stored in online cloud-based servers allows for detailed soil analysis," Lydia Nusbaum reports. "Experts say that Missouri farmers need high-speed internet access to remain competitive in an increasingly technology-reliant field. But studies have shown that about 60 percent of rural Missourians lack broadband access."

The Missourian went to Hickory County
(in red) for the story. (Wikipedia base map)
Another story zeroes in on Hickory County, which ranks 92nd out of 115 in the state for broadband speed. In the small town of Flemington, convenience-store owner Cindy Gilmore must often shut down the credit-card readers at her gas pumps because internet service is down. If shoppers can't give her cash, she must use a Square card reader to take credit or debit cards. That means she has to pay a 2.75 percent fee on every transaction. "Even then, it’s common for the credit-card information to fail to process when the internet starts working again, Gilmore said. She then has to track down the people who spent money at her store, or take a loss. This has been a problem since she and her husband, Randy, purchased the store six and a half years ago," Kathryn Hardison reports.

Rural schools struggle with limited broadband. At Fatima High School in Westphalia, teachers have to plan carefully to make sure bandwidth is shared carefully among staff and students, since too many users at once can cause the whole thing to crash or slow dramatically. And if a certain class needs to take an online test, the rest of the school must stay offline, Annika Merrilees reports.

Unreliable internet also hampers telehealth services, a growing industry that has been a boon to rural communities that need greater access to health care specialists, Mica Soellner and Trevor Hook report. The Missourian is published by the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Though Missouri ranks 42nd in the U.S. for internet connectivity and 30th in broadband speed, state lawmakers have thus far failed to take effective action to improve the situation, the Missourian reports. "The last completed state initiative to improve broadband coverage in rural Missouri was during Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration with MOBroadbandNow in 2009," Hardison reports. The initiative submitted its last report in June 2015, and since then there has been no completed or successful legislation to bring more and better broadband to Missouri.

Gov. Eric Greitens proposed a plan in April 2017 to equip every school in the state with broadband, using $6 million in state funding and $39 million in federal funding. "Since April, the administration has received federal approval of the program and began working with local school districts to apply for state and federal assistance under the program, according to Parker Briden, Greitens’ spokesman. He said in an email that work has begun to prepare for fiber-optic cable installation," Hardison reports.

An unofficial working group called the Missouri Broadband Initiative has been helping the effort to improve broadband in the state. It has representatives from the University of Missouri as well as state departments like Economic Development and Agriculture and the Missouri Farm Bureau. The group held a meeting in July that more than 100 people attended, representing sectors such as health care, education, recreation, fire, safety, economic development and government, Hardison reports. The meeting helped them realize that there was no one-size-fits-all solution for the state. They continue to work with Greitens on the issue, and have recommended that he create a state office to coordinate broadband efforts.

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