NW Missouri broadband planning offers statewide model

Significant funding opportunities ahead for expansion, adoption, digital equity.

  • Published: Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022

MARYVILLE, Mo. – Efforts to expand broadband access and digital literacy in northwestern Missouri can be a model for the rest of the state, said B.J. Tanksley, director of broadband development for the Missouri Department of Economic Development.

Through its Digitally Connected Community Guide process, the University of Missouri System Broadband Initiative can help communities take advantage of federal and state funding opportunities that have the potential to “make amazing strides” in making broadband available throughout Missouri, said Tanksley, who was a featured speaker at the recent Public-Private Partnership Broadband Business Plan Competition in Maryville.

The Aug. 20 event highlighted a competition among three student teams from the University of Missouri–Kansas City, Missouri University of Science & Technology and University of Missouri-St. Louis. The teams offered proposals for public-private partnerships to bring affordable high-speed internet access to the five-county area. The event also showcased broadband planning efforts by the Northwest Missouri Regional Council of Governments and MU Extension that could serve as a model for communities in other parts of the state.

“We realize we’ll never grow the economy like we want to in this state, we’ll never drive educational access, we’ll never cause health care to be accessible to every person in the state regardless of ZIP code if we don’t figure this out,” said Marshall Stewart, UM System chief engagement officer and MU vice chancellor for extension and engagement.

A recent analysis of Missouri’s broadband gap estimates it will take $2 billion to bring high-speed internet to every underserved area in the state, Tanksley said. Thanks to federal and state legislators, along with state, local, regional and private support, Missouri is in line to be among the top states per capita to receive federal money to expand broadband access and adoption, Stewart said.

The first tranche of funds is available now to apply for, with more opportunities ahead over the next eight years.

“Community involvement is huge,” Tanksley said, adding that it is important that projects have community support and promote not just broadband access but also adoption of the technology. “We want to make sure everyone can fully engage in the current economy.”

The five-county northwestern Missouri region spent six months piloting the Digitally Connection Community Guide process. Developed by the UM System Broadband team, the process helps communities create their own road maps to broadband access and adoption tailored to their specific circumstances.

Randa Doty, Denice Ferguson and Joe Lear of MU Extension facilitated the process with local leaders, businesses, internet service providers and residents in the five counties.

Using the process, each county determined its economic development priorities: digital entrepreneurship in Worth, e-learning in Holt, digital manufacturing in Nodaway, telehealth in Gentry and precision agriculture in Atchison.

Lectures, surveys and community meetings led to the development of a robust Northwest Missouri Broadband Plan, Doty said. “This … puts our communities in a position where they can apply quickly for broadband funding when the grant application periods open,” she said.

“There’s been great work done here,” Tanksley said. “We want to recognize it and partner in similar fashion” across the state with entities like the University of Missouri and regional planning commissions when the state ramps up efforts this fall to capitalize on federal funds that will be available to help eliminate Missouri’s digital divide, he said.

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