Missourians might leave state over internet problems, experts warn

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Roughly 20% of Missouri‘s population doesn’t have access to high-speed internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission, but lawmakers plan to use millions of federal dollars to expand broadband across the state.

The state’s education department said one in five students doesn’t have access to the internet at home. Under the federal infrastructure bill signed by the President last week, more than $1 million is headed to the state to expand broadband in Missouri.

Economists told lawmakers during a four-hour hearing if increasing access to high-speed internet isn’t addressed soon, younger Missourians will be leaving the state.

“If we don’t have high-level service out there, we’re going to lose them — and the pandemic taught us that,” co-founder of the AgriExperts and the University of Missouri’s Dynamic Econometric Economic Development Program (DEEDP) Abner Womack testified to lawmakers Monday.

Chairman of the House committee Rep. Louis Riggs (R-Hannibal) asked Womack and co-director Keith Eisberg what do the two economic experts recommend?

“What would be your recommendation be how to integrate these various data points into an overall strategy?” Riggs asked.

COVID-19 revealed Missouri’s digital divide after employees were forced to work from homes and schools closed their doors.

“Missouri, we are lacking high-speed broadband where people stay at home, work from there, children being able to do their homework from home,” Eisberg said.

The concern not only is access needs to be increased, but also affordable.

“Another problem we have is the lack of access in terms of affordability,” Riggs said. “Speed is something that we know is a critical issue, we’re as low as 49th in the last two years.”

Missouri is set to receive a minimum of $100 million to improve broadband, which will provide internet access to more than 330,000 Missourians.

Lawmakers have previously said they are also prepared to spend COVID relief money on increasing access, but economists said they need to have a plan.

“Get the money, and it goes out to someone. We want to be able to project it before they get it, where they think they might be,” Womack said. “It’s not a one-year type of thing. You’re going to wind up 10 years out here on all of us when this money comes out.”

Eisberg said the best way for the state to get more money, is to be prepared with the statistics and know what is needed.

“They are going to require states to do exactly what we just did in this project here, mapping and economics,” Eisberg said.

The state’s Department of Economic Development is looking for a new broadband development director after Director Tim Arbeiter is set to leave on Jan. 7 to move into the private sector.

Between the governor’s office and the state’s education department, there’s currently an additional $450 million in COVID relief dollars going towards increasing internet access.

Riggs’ committee met for the final time Monday before lawmakers return in January for the session. The committee will now file a report with its findings to the General Assembly.

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