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Missouri and Illinois to get $40 million in federal funds for high-speed rural internet

David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
About 20% of Missourians, many of them in rural areas, lack access to high-speed internet.

Nearly $40 million in federal money will flow to rural counties in Missouri and Illinois to build high-speed internet networks, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Thursday.

Most of the funding comes in the form of low-interest loans from the Department of Agriculture; some is part of a grant from the ReConnect program, established by Congress in 2019.

“Many parts of the country today still have limited internet access in terms of upload and download speeds that simply don't allow for multiple uses, and don't accommodate distance learning and telemedicine, don't allow businesses to expand market opportunities and would not allow farmers the opportunity at precision agriculture,” Vilsack said in a phone call with reporters.

Net Vision Communications will use a $12.3 million loan to deliver high-speed internet to 4,587 people, 300 businesses, nine farms and 15 public schools in Missouri’s Barton County. Also in Missouri, Chariton Valley Telephone Corp. will use a $2.2 million grant to build high-speed internet infrastructure for 642 people, eight businesses and 94 farms in Monroe and Randolph counties.

In Illinois, Egyptian Telephone Cooperative Association will receive a $25.2 million loan to hook up 1,140 people, 22 businesses and 84 farms in Jackson and Randolph counties to high-speed internet.

More than 1.26 million people in Missouri, or 20% of the state’s population, lack high-speed internet access, according to data compiled by University of Missouri Extension. Among the counties served by Thursday’s round of grants and loans, Missouri’s Monroe County is most in need of advanced internet infrastructure: Only 64.64% of households there have access to broadband internet, according to the university.

The bipartisan infrastructure measure passed into law earlier this year includes another $65 billion to promote internet access. Federal officials have not yet divided up those funds.

Lack of speedy internet can be a drag on businesses.

Employees at Swiss Meats and Sausage Co. in Hermann, Missouri, use a slower DSL internet connection to handle credit card transactions and a separate satellite internet service to connect the tablets they use in the processing area of the plant.

“It gets us through some days. But, yeah, not real well,” co-owner Janice Thomas said of her internet service. The company employs about 35 people.

Online orders have increased during the coronavirus pandemic, Thomas said, but the combination of unreliable internet and no mobile phone service can make it tough to do business.

“We've got a lot of disadvantages in our area, because people can't always reach you,” she said. “There’s a lot more of our business that can be done digitally, but you can only do so much with what you got.”

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.