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FCC: More than two-thirds of rural Missourians lack high-speed internet access

Dan Chace | Flickr
Missouri needs more internet service producers to connect underground fiber networks to customers to increase high-speed internet access, a new FCC report says.

Nearly a third of Missourians - or about 1.8 million people - lack access to high-speed internet, according to a report last month from the Federal Communications Commission. That means Missouri ranks 15th among all states for the highest percentage of residents not served by fiber networks that can deliver such high speeds.

The FCC puts out a report annually to record progress on its mandate that broadband be “deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.”

The report also highlights a digital divide between rural and urban Missourians. More than 70 percent of rural Missourians, versus only 12 percent of the state’s urban population, had no access to advanced broadband internet service. (See map here.)

The FCC defines high-speed, advanced broadband service as 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and three Mbps for uploads. That’s an update from the 2010 standard of four Mbps/1 Mbps, which the FCC describes as “inadequate” to meet the service demands of today’s technology, like streaming videos, participating in online classes, and downloading large files.

But even taking lower speeds into account shows thousands of Missourians go without. Seven percent had no access to speeds of three Mbps/768 Kbps, and nine percent lacked speeds of 10 Mbps/768 Kbps.

Missouri’s numbers are in marked contrast with those in Illinois, where only five percent of residents had no access to high speed internet. There were even fewer at lower speeds. Overall, 17 percent of Americans did not have access to the 25/3 speed.

Attorney Mike Orlowski, an associate at Polsinelli law firm, has worked with the St. Louis Regional Chamber in its involvement with the St. Louis Regional Broadband Summit. He said having so many people living in areas where high-speed broadband service isn’t being delivered hurts not only residents, but also local economies.

“It means that towns can’t compete economically. It means that people don’t have basic access to data and even more importantly now, access to enough data to run the apps and websites and services that we need to survive, whether it’s doing your taxes or watching Netflix or everything we’ve come to rely on its so data-heavy,” Orlowski said. “If you are out in rural Missouri, you’re going to have a hard time having enough bandwidth to just perform daily functions.”

In rural areas, many internet service companies are reluctant to spend a lot of money building out infrastructure to provide high speed service to limited numbers of people in small communities, some of whom may not even be able to afford the advanced services.

"That's why a lot of small towns in Missouri, particularly ones that have populations of less than 10,000, don't have many providers there, because...towns of that size and smaller really don't have enough revenue coming out of subscriptions to cover the costs of landline traditional networks," he said.

But Orlowski said that’s where incentives through the FCC and the state of Missouri can encourage providers to expand service by mitigating costs. For example, he said Governor Jay Nixon’s public-private broadband initiative identified where fiber networks existed around the state and gave providers incentives to build the connections between that underground infrastructure to rural consumers, completing what experts those “last mile” networks.

But, given the FCC’s latest numbers, more work remains.

“We have a ton of fiber in the ground across rural Missouri,” Orlowski said. “What we don’t have are the smaller last mile ISP - internet service providers - to get it up out of the ground to push it out around these communities to get these people’s homes and offices.”

Even urban areas like St. Louis County and city face some specific challenges to advanced broadband expansion, Orlowski said. He cites the area’s numerous municipalities, each with its own set of policies and procedures, as creating a “political challenge” that makes it difficult for an internet provider to navigate an approval process.

Additionally, Orlowski said St. Louis County and city have some of the country’s highest “right-of-way” fees. Cities will charge utilities like internet service providers a fee to use certain underground space, usually a couple of cents per foot or a flat fee of a couple hundred dollars. But St. Louis County and city’s considerably higher fees can be a challenge to companies trying to enter the market.

“If you are a small provider trying to build a new network to give people options, you are actually precluded from building out your network because you can’t afford that huge tax and barrier to entry to build that network,” Orlowski said.

Orlowski said that reduces competition among internet service producers. Bigger companies with a longer history in an area will take longer to change and provide more and better service, Orlowski said, which means “fewer choices for consumers, therefore lower speeds.”

“More providers means more competition, and that competition drives down price for consumers and ups the speed,” he said.

But he said he believes the St. Louis region is developing a “vision of the future” as it recognizes it needs more options and faster internet to compete with other cities like Kansas City. That said, Orlowski said it isn’t just important to have a high download speed so residents can consume content; Orlowski said to be “future-proof,” cities will need to make sure their infrastructure can support faster uploads.

“As you get more broadband to rural America, it enables people to push more content to the cloud, and whether you are a student or business owner or a casual consumer, you are going to see that upload speed is much more important,” he said.