COLUMBIA, Mo. – A big challenge with bringing broadband to rural Missouri is that every community is different. That means there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for connecting those communities to high-speed internet, says Sam Tennant, manager of the University of Missouri System’s Broadband Initiative.

The initiative began in late 2019 to support efforts to grow the broadband infrastructure for Missouri. About 20% of the state’s population lacks access to high-speed internet. That translates to more than a million Missourians who can’t take advantage of broadband applications that play increasingly vital roles in tackling Missouri’s “grand challenges” in the areas of economic opportunity, educational access, and health and well-being.

“We know that broadband access is critical to the advancement of our state’s priorities, like the NextGen Precision Health initiative, a 21st century workforce and access to education and opportunities that further support our economic prosperity,” said Marshall Stewart, UM System chief engagement officer and MU vice chancellor for extension and engagement. “We may not be building the physical networks, but we can convene the people to advocate, innovate, fund and protect this essential infrastructure for the people of our state.”

Thanks to federal and state funding, broadband expansion projects in Missouri received at least $290 million in 2020. The USDA ReConnect program funded two rounds of proposals that will connect 15,000 people, 135 farms and 100 business, plus educational and health care facilities, public schools and a fire station. The FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund invested $176 million to help connect nearly 70,000 Missouri residents and businesses.

But bringing broadband to rural Missouri is not simply a matter of finding ways to pay for the necessary infrastructure and hardware, Tennant notes. Each community’s unique combination of priorities, existing assets and potential partners—and sometimes even terrain—will determine specific costs, available funding sources and appropriate technologies.

Much of the Broadband Initiative’s effort to date has gone to providing resources to help communities work toward developing a feasible and appropriate broadband plan.

The Missouri Broadband Resource Rail, created in partnership with SourceLink and MU Extension’s Center for Applied Research and Engagement Systems, offers a searchable database of public, private and nonprofit community resources and an extensive online library of relevant documents.

Last summer, a workshop brought together community leaders, government officials, industry partners, nonprofits and others in Bollinger County, where only about 2% of the county’s 12,000 residents have the bandwidth to use Zoom. The workshop yielded an actionable plan for the county, with many of the findings and steps applicable to other areas of Missouri.

MU Extension’s rural economic development program, Exceed, is conducting studies of the economic benefits of broadband for Bollinger and two other Missouri counties to be selected later, Tennant says. “It’s to build a case for broadband in a community: This is what could happen economically for your town if broadband infrastructure was expanded.” The studies would quantify the economic impact of increased access to broadband-based applications such as e-commerce, online learning and telehealth.

While the initiative can’t provide these kinds of in-depth services for all parts of the state, a “Digitally Connected Community Guide,” set to launch this spring, will enable community leaders, planners and stakeholders do much of this work on their own. The free online guide will include sophisticated data mapping tools to help answer key questions related to broadband planning. It will feature a step-by-step process that will result in gathering all the documents needed for completing a request for proposal (RFP) to identify partners and services as communities work to enhance local broadband connectivity, Tennant says.

The process starts with engaging key stakeholders, including entities that may already have infrastructures in place that a community might leverage—such as schools, libraries, hospitals and electric cooperatives. In addition to technical considerations, communities will have to determine appropriate and viable financing options, legal structures and business models.

Tennant notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the project’s trajectory in several different ways. “COVID made us have to adapt fast,” he says. Plans for door-to-door surveys had to be scrapped. The Bollinger County workshop was held online.

However, the large-scale shift to online learning and working from home vividly underscored the need for broadband and in some cases gave a boost to new and existing efforts to expand access to high-speed internet. For example, Gov. Mike Parson committed $50 million in funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to expand broadband infrastructure in support of telehealth and distance education.

Tennant says the broadband team has identified a wealth of resources and expertise within the UM System that will continue to fuel the initiative. “One of my favorite parts so far has been knocking down our internal walls and building communication,” he said. “We didn’t realize that across the four campuses there were so many similar projects and researchers who could benefit from each other if they knew what others were doing. And each of those internal projects either had an external partner or knew of another project or entity in the community. Then we opened up to who else is out there and started building relationships.”