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Missouri’s broadband director wants to improve connectivity with $500 million from the feds

(The Center Square) – As a few dozen people in a conference room at the St. Louis County Library and dozens more online watched a presentation on Missouri’s broadband plan, the screen went dark. is suddenly extinguished.

“If we don’t seem to be freaking out, it’s because in the broadband office these things happen quite often,” said BJ Tanksley, director of broadband development at the Department of Economic Development. Missouri.

Seconds later, information reappeared on the screen and the 23rd of 25 statewide meetings continued. Tanksley and his team listened to how Missouri should best use about $500 million to improve the state’s high-speed internet connectivity.

“It won’t be easy and it will take time,” Tanksley said in an interview with The Center Square. “I’m always afraid of over-promising. But what we’re seeing that’s exciting is solving a huge problem for about 400,000 sites statewide. Between what we do with [American Rescue Plan Act] and the promises of [Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program]which is part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, we have a chance to make a real difference.

Tanksley, a former legislative director of the Missouri Farm Bureau, became the first director of the state’s new broadband development office last January. Earlier that month, Republican Missouri Gov. Mike Parson revealed about $340 million for broadband in his budget proposal. The legislature approved $285 million.

In May, the Tanksley office released a study showing that about 500,000 Missourians lacked broadband service at download speeds of 100 megabits per second and upload speeds of 20 Mbps, a new minimum standard for locations. underserved. He estimated a cost of nearly $2 billion to deliver the service via wireless or wired technologies.

In appearances across the state, Parson compared building capacity for broadband internet to providing infrastructure for electricity in the early 1900s.

“100 years ago there were times when it was said that people didn’t need electricity and sadly we hear that from time to time on the broadband front,” said Tanksley. “Hopefully with the funding available, we can bridge that gap and it will be like electricity.”

Tanksley said balancing the interests of consumers and internet service providers will be an important task for his team.

A participant in Wednesday’s meeting represented a cable company and urged the state to reimburse the cost of new and existing utility poles. Another participant was a resident of Jefferson County without broadband access. She said she wrote to several government officials, including her congressman and President Biden, to let them know she couldn’t work from home or watch job training videos because of prohibitive fees for access. to satellite.

Tanksley is also aware of — and prepared for — criticism of big government spending programs and mandates. The federal Digital Equity Act will provide $2.75 billion nationwide to promote digital equity and inclusion to help those who cannot afford high-speed internet or who don’t know how to use it.

“When people talk about government, I get it,” Tanksley said. “It’s a lot of government. But the truth is that without some support, we can never bridge the gap. We have to be smart about how we spend. Even though there is a lot of stuff available, the problem is bigger than what we have funds for.