Congressman Cleaver hosts broadband discussion
Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II, United States Representative for Missouri’s 5th District, hosted a meeting titled the Rural-Urban Broadband Digital Divide Discussion, in Blue Springs on Friday, March 1. The special guest for the meeting was newly appointed Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks. Starks, a Kansas City native, was unanimously confirmed by the United States Senate on Jan. 2 to serve on the FCC, and was sworn in on Jan. 30. He is the first person from Kansas City to serve as a commissioner of the FCC.
Others on the panel included Chris Chinn, director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture; Luke Holtschneider, Deputy Director, Missouri Department of Economic Development; Shatomi Luster-Edward, county engagement specialist in Economic Development for the University of Missouri Extension in Jackson County; and Janie Dunning, Internet consultant for the Missouri Farm Bureau.
“The digital divide is an issue that both urban and rural residents, businesses and local governments are dealing with,” Cleaver said. “Lower broadband width and slower Internet speeds are leaving communities at an economic disadvantage that is awfully difficult to overcome in the digital world of the 21st century. The FCC, like myself, has made this issue a priority, and I want to thank Commissioner Starks for coming out to listen to the people of this district.”
The congressman went on to say he was glad to have voted in favor of the 2018 Farm Bill which, among other developments within the bill, authorizes $350 million per year for new broadband infrastructure.
“I hope – and will add this to my prayers - to be able to continue to find funding for broadband within our state,” Cleaver said. “It is just not right that our rural areas and much of our inner-city core do not have broadband access.”
Starks said he was glad to be back in the Kansa City area.
“This is my first trip since I’ve been in Washington, and I wanted to come to my hometown. It is important to me that o all know I am on the job,” Starks said. “This is a very interesting time for Kansas City. On one hand, we hear about all kinds of fiber being laid, Wi-Fi everywhere, and talk about 5G in the very near future. But, on the other hand, many of our rural areas and communities have no access to high speed internet at all. In fact, Missouri ranks 41st in the nation for broadband access. And there are areas in many of our cities that have no access.”
Starks said just this week the FCC started allocating some $255 million to the state of Missouri to help with rural broadband access issues, and that he was glad to hear that Missouri has started its own broadband access deployment.
“That means a lot of providers will now have to start building out more access,” he said. “This is so important for our youth, for agriculture, for tele-health and tele-medicine,” Starks said. “I recently read where rural access to broadband is helping with the opioid problems throughout the state.”
Starks finished by saying he came to the meeting to listen.
“I am a firm believer, and have always believed, that the best ideas don’t come from Washington,” he said, adding that such ideas come from the people who face the issues the government is hoping to solve.
Director Chinn noted that her family are fifth-generation farmers.
“We raise hogs, cattle, soybeans and, most importantly, kids,” she said. “We need high speed internet in our rural areas. Everything we do in agriculture revolves around the internet. Now, we have to access the ‘cloud’ to access records. Sometimes I have to leave the farm and go into town to upload or download something we need for the farming business.”
She said the lack of access impacts their ability to communicate at times.
“Even our cell-phone coverage isn’t that good,” she said. “With precision agriculture, we have to be able to access the ‘cloud.’ That’s why I’m so glad people like Congressman Cleaver, Government Mike Parson, and Commissioner Starks are getting involved and showing so much interest in getting broadband access up and running in Missouri. At the department of ag, we have made the commitment to focus on access.”
Holtschneider said the Missouri Department of Economic Development is focused on issues facing rural communities and businesses all over the state.
“We believe that broadband is the most important element in making communities sustainable and able to grow, even to becoming thriving communities,” he said. “To many rural areas have lost young, bright minds because of a lack of resources such as broadband.”
Holtschneider said broadband is a vital piece of the overall infrastructure of the state.
“We have made access to high-speed internet a priority,” he said. “It is vital to workforce development. We have to identify and face the issue if we are going to solve it.”
Luster-Edward said the University of Missouri Extension Service is committed to brining broadband access to all areas of Missouri.
“Access opens up opportunity,” Luster-Edward said. “Opportunity leads to personal growth, economic growth, better health, and better education. Lack of access in a disappointment, but it is not for lack of effort. We are all here to facilitate moving forward with broadband projects with a commitment to cresting internet inclusion.”
Dunning, who is a former Missouri Rural Development State Director, said she has been involved with rural communities her entire professional life.
“I am here today to tell you that broadband is not a separate line item,” Dunning explained. “We can’t have good health care, or good education, or productive agriculture, without internet access. Everyone here brings something different to the table. I’m the weeds person. I’m the person that needs to see something happen and not just hear someone talk about it. I’m glad to see $254 million plus coming to our state. That means 88 or our 115 counties will be getting some equipment, or services, or what have you. I only ask that we make sure the awardees (of the contracts related to the funding) – who are getting tax-payer money – that we make sure they do what they say they are going to do. We have to do our own due diligence to make sure this works.”
Dunning finished by stating rural don’t need to go from un-served to underserved.
“That’s just a small step, and it’s not enough,” she said. “Rural areas have to have high speed, reliable, and affordable access to the internet. We need all three.”
The priorities for use of available funding, according to the panel, will be to bring access to un-served areas first, and then to concentrate on underserved areas. Materials handed out at the meeting stated that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, along with the FCC and the National Telecommunications Information Administration will be charged with ensuring broadband loans and grants are targeted to areas that are currently underserved.
The panel said the state of Missouri has a Broadband Development Office. Tim Arbeiter is leading the office. According to its website, the office was established earlier as a partnership between the Department of Economic Development and the Department of Agriculture to build and strengthen partnerships between public and private stakeholders, and align efforts statewide to improve broadband access.