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In Missouri, where 780,000 people don’t have access to broadband that meets federal speed standards and another 352,000 don’t have broadband access at all, the University of Missouri System has been exploring solutions to lessen digital inequity.
So far, that’s included the creation of the Missouri Broadband Resource Rail, a website that includes a guide to organizations working on digital equity in the state, data maps showcasing broadband access in Missouri and an internet speed test calculator.
The University of Missouri System’s Broadband Initiative team also works directly with community leaders to figure out how to expand broadband access.
Sam Tennant, manager of the University of Missouri System’s Broadband Initiative, said the broadband team members — which include faculty, staff and researchers — are embedded in many communities across the state. The initiative also connects researchers among the university system’s other campuses, like in Kansas City and Rolla.
“Being a research institution, we’re always thinking forward. And because we have an arm/extension, that’s a community engagement lead, on top of research,” Tennant said.
Here’s what the team has learned since launching in 2019.
How Mizzou team is working with Bollinger County
The team’s work led researchers to focus on one community in particular to expand broadband access: Bollinger County.
The county of about 12,000 in southeast Missouri has the lowest broadband adoption rate in the state. Only 2.3% of the county population has access to internet at the minimum speed that the Federal Communications Commission defines as basic broadband.
The University of Missouri began partnering with the county last summer following a virtual session in June, where a Mizzou broadband workshop focused on how to expand digital access in Bollinger County. A team of Mizzou researchers produced a list of recommendations.
This included expanding the existing Bollinger County Broadband Committee to internet service providers and other government agencies, using the committee to better engage residents about the benefits of broadband, and pursuing both public and private funding.
At workshops in June and September, researchers heard from Bollinger County residents about the barriers they face with a lack of internet coverage options. Cellphone coverage is insufficient. The county health department struggled to upload and download the data required by state health officials at the height of the pandemic. Business opportunities are limited.
It’s the goal of the partnership to lessen those barriers to improve overall quality of life.
A study published by the Broadband Initiative team found that over 10 years, broadband expansion in Bollinger would lead to an increase in employment, tax revenue and worker income.
Tennant said Bollinger County has been open and collaborative in the process. But one challenge has been getting the whole community to agree on their broadband needs.
Now the team is starting to connect Bollinger County with internet service providers. In addition to addressing the issue of residents spread out over difficult terrain, another challenge has been figuring out which internet solutions will meet everyone’s needs. Cost is one big factor for county residents, Tennant said.
“For instance, if we did bring in fiber, because it’s a low-income area, they probably couldn’t afford the triple-digit monthly subscription it costs to get that type of internet,” Tennant said.
When it comes to broadband solutions for communities like Bollinger, Tennant said progress can be slow.
“Anytime you make one step forward, you really get five back — you get pushed back,” Tennant said. “I think the biggest challenge is staying the course. … Once you hit one barrier, recognize you’re going to get pushed back, link your arms back up and continue to push.”
What’s next: a guide and glossary
As the University of Missouri System’s Broadband Initiative team works with counties like Bollinger and cities across the state, it is also focused on increasing digital literacy.
The team is getting ready to release a Digitally Connected Communities guide that can help any Missouri county navigate how to increase broadband access.
Tony Luppino, law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a member of the broadband team, said members of the initiative are also working on a glossary and related tools to break down the jargon around broadband and internet access.
“So that people translate it into, ‘Well, OK, what can I do with that high speed internet?’” Luppino said. “As opposed to, if somebody just tells you download and upload speeds, unless you’re well-versed in knowing what those translate into, you don’t really know.”
Tennant said it will also be important for the broadband team to help communities understand the different funding sources available to support broadband expansion.
The university’s role in these local partnerships is as an advisor, Tennant said, and using the team’s expertise to help local leaders if and when they run into roadblocks.
“We seem to know, across the state, who’s got what going on, so we can connect folks to the right places, introduce community stakeholders to legal and financial structures to help them fund broadband, continue to promote the use of broadband-based technology and applications,” he said. “We want to publicly be open about the pain points and the successes, so when others pick up the ball, they know kind of what their next play is.”
This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.