Senate committee recommends language change to broadband bill

By Kathryn Hardison
Columbia Missourian

JEFFERSON CITY — Broadband equipment provided through a state-grant program would run less risk of becoming obsolete under a proposal discussed by senators in a committee hearing earlier this month.

House Bill 1872 would create a grant program in the Missouri Department of Economic Development that would match 50 percent of federal funding for projects to expand broadband access in unserved and underserved areas in Missouri.

Fifty-one percent of Missouri does not have access to broadband, the bill sponsor, Rep. Delus Johnson, R-St. Joseph, said at the April 11 hearing. The bill is written to ensure at least 90 percent of Missouri will have basic broadband speeds of 10 mbps download and 1 mbps upload, Johnson said. Once 90 percent of Missouri is covered, the grants will be made available for communities with little or poor access.

The grants can be provided to nonprofits, corporations, cooperate associations, businesses and political subdivisions.

Committee members talked about including the phrase “scalability” in the bill, so that if minimum speeds increase or the community wants to increase its broadband speed, the technology in place would be able to do so. Members also talked about raising the standard to a download speed of 25 mbps and an upload speed of 3 mbps, which the Federal Communications Commission has made the benchmark speed.

Ric Telthorst, with the Missouri Telecommunications Industry Association, reminded the committee that higher speeds means higher costs, and fewer people would be served because funding wouldn’t go as far.

Senate committee members also expressed concern about how the bill addresses census blocks and whether those areas would be eligible to gain broadband access through the grant system.

The term “unserved area” in the bill means a “census block without access to wire line or fixed wireless broadband internet service.” The blocks are small geographic areas defined by the census.

Johnson said he will add language to the bill to include that unserved areas within each census block can receive help so that “we don’t rule out any census block just because they’ve got a little bit of broadband coverage in it.”

Johnson said the bill will be dependent on appropriations beginning with the next fiscal year.

He said he is “optimistic” the bill will receive the funding it needs. According to bill documents, each project will have a maximum amount of funding at $5 million.

Congress passed a government funding bill last month that includes $600 million for broadband expansion in rural America.

Having a broadband grant system in place would attract some of that federal money that might otherwise not come to the state, Telthorst said. The FCC also will hand out $2 billion through the Connect American Fund over the next 10 years.

A parade of organizations testified in support of the bill, including: CenturyLink, Missouri Small Telephone Companies Group, Missouri Farm Bureau, Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Missouri Association of Municipal Utilities and the Missouri Soybean Association. No one spoke in opposition.

The House passed the bill in March with a 136-11 vote.

Johnson wrote the bill in response to a special report of broadband in rural areas published by the Columbia Missourian in early January.