University of Missouri's Broadband Initiative Provides Access, Economic Growth to Rural Communities
July 27, 2021

Expanding broadband access to rural and underserved communities was a concern for many years before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted in-person classes for college students across the country. However, the sudden transition to virtual settings, lack of adequate devices, and unreliable internet access further complicated the already-pressing problem.

The Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan, released in the spring, included $100 billion to support broadband networks and congressional discussions have consistently maintained investments in broadband as a core element as part of an infrastructure package. Along with 21 other associations, ACE recently wrote to leaders of the House Energy and Commerce and Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committees urging them to do so.

While legislators continue to work to provide adequate federal assistance, many universities across the country are establishing programs to better serve their local communities. The University of Missouri (MU) System started its Broadband Initiative in late 2019, led by MU System researchers from across its four campuses and the MU Extension. It is estimated that 1.2 million Missourians lack access to high-speed internet and investing in broadband helps expand economic opportunity and educational access.

More than 35 percent of rural Americans lack access to high-speed internet, compared to 4 percent of those living in urban environments. Additionally, broadband access tends to be lower in counties that have significant Black and Native American populations. It is critical that Congress continues to make investments in high-speed internet in these areas to ensure that postsecondary institutions can provide multi-media rich, bandwidth-intensive courses, programs, learning resources, and expand research opportunities to students across the country.

The Initiative focuses on several communities across the state, with team members that include faculty, staff, and researchers. The initiative also connects researchers among the university system’s other campuses, such as Kansas City and Rolla.

Sam Tennant, manager of the University of Missouri System’s Broadband Initiative, said to The Kansas City Beacon that “being a research institution, we’re always thinking forward. And because we have an arm/extension, that’s a community engagement lead, on top of research.”

One particular region that the research institution remains focused on is Bollinger County, which consists of 12,000 residents in southwest Missouri. Only 2.3 percent of Bollinger County residents have access to basic broadband.

In the summer of 2020, Mizzou offered a broadband workshop focused on expanding digital access in the county. The recommendations team members offered included expanding the existing Bollinger County Broadband Committee to internet service providers and other government agencies, using the committee to better engage residents about the benefits of broadband, and pursuing both public and private funding. Through better broadband access, residents will be able to increase employment, worker income, and improve their overall quality of life.

The team also released a Digitally Connected Communities guide that can help any Missouri county resident navigate how to increase broadband access.

Alan Spell, an assistant extension professor at the University of Missouri, emphasized the importance of community residents taking advantage of broadband access to improve their businesses and healthcare systems when speaking to the University of Missouri.

“Gains in job growth, income, and GDP come through applications like telemedicine and expanded opportunities related to education, employment, and business,” he said. “Most of those benefits will emerge gradually, though building the physical infrastructure will produce immediate temporary gains in construction jobs and related economic activity.”​