In 2018, you might assume everyone living in Missouri has high-speed internet at their fingertips. But you’d be wrong. Roughly 1.25 million Missourians – or 20 percent – still don’t have access to high-speed internet, the majority of which live in rural communities, according to the FCC Broadband Progress Report.
It’s problematic for everyone, from farmers who rely on the internet to stay competitive to rural school teachers who need the quality internet access and technology their urban counterparts enjoy. This challenge is being met with solutions by groups ranging from cooperatives to traditional internet providers. They are making a push to invest in the expensive infrastructure for broadband internet in sparsely populated areas, where providers struggle to distribute the cost among customers because there are far fewer of them.
Ralls County Electric Cooperative
In Ralls County, when Ralls County Electric Cooperative found that satellite internet wasn’t meeting their members’ needs, they applied for, and won, $10 million in federal grant money to build a $25 million fiber-optic network.
“We’re trying to figure out ways to build the network for folks who demand service in our area. Too often, if people want better broadband, they have to move,” says Lynn Hodges, manager at Ralls County Electric Cooperative. “The cost is high to build a system for a limited number of folks, and you have to spread that cost. Think about a community of 80 people per mile versus four people per mile like we have. That’s why federal funding is so important for broadband expansion.”
Lack of high-speed internet access has become a quality-of-life issue.
“Farmers are losing their kids to the city because rural internet service has been unreliable,” Hodges says. “In 1937, federal dollars helped build electric systems in rural America, and now we need federal assistance to build fiber networks.”
Ralls County was one of the first cooperatives in Missouri to build their own fiber-optic network, and it’s been a huge success so far.
“Our board took a big chance. We started building in 2010, and we’re close to a 70 percent take rate,” Hodges says. “There’s a lot of demand.”
At Epperson Farms in Ralls County, access to high-speed internet isn’t a luxury – it’s crucial to the success of the business. Jordan and Kylie Epperson farm 5,000 acres on a corn and soybean rotation and raise hogs with Jordan’s parents, Jerry and Janet Epperson. Before they had access to broadband, they connected to the internet through dial-up.
“Dial-up proved to be unreliable and forced us to approach many business practices differently,” Kylie Epperson says. “We couldn’t send large files through email or use cloud-based systems, like John Deere link and AgManager, our accounting program.”
Farming has changed drastically over the last decade, requiring internet use for ag technology systems that help farmers communicate health records to their veterinarian, transmit GPS data from a field to ensure minimal use of resources and more.
“As farms begin to consolidate with more acres per farm family, broadband is a necessary tool to communicate between tractors while operating in different locations, to input real-time data from equipment,” Epperson says. “Additionally, it enables us to monitor our grain dryer located away from the home site, send and receive scale data from the scale house where we weigh grain trucks and livestock trailers, and monitor our irrigation system without driving to it multiple times per day.”
Missouri’s Statewide Broadband Initiative
In January 2018, the Missouri Department of Economic Development and the Missouri Department of Agriculture partnered to launch a new statewide initiative to expand broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas. The intent is that Missouri’s rural communities will no longer be at a competitive disadvantage in farming techniques, education, and more due to lack of broadband.
Through the initiative, the departments plan to work with existing internet providers to map out the existing network of both lit and dark fiber. Mapping our current broadband infrastructure will help us better understand where there is currently dark fiber, or fiber that is currently in place but unutilized, which will offer Missouri the opportunity to reach new customers with infrastructure already in the ground.
Meanwhile, Hodges is hopeful other rural Missouri communities will follow Ralls County’s lead.
“Ralls County is a small co-op, but we’ve been considered a leader in broadband expansion,” he says. “We have 4,600 members and 3,000 fiber customers. People want fiber. People want high-speed. We’re trying to help other communities get started, and we’re happy to help.”