(The Center Square) – A bill in the Missouri legislature would prioritize the adoption of broadband internet over providing its availability and mandate the task to the Department of Economic Development (DED).
“We have a digital divide,” said Rep. Michael Johnson, D-Kansas City, the sponsor of House Bill 2737, during a hearing Wednesday before the House Special Committee on Broadband and Infrastructure. “We know we’re in the process of $400 million coming in and we know at least $250 million will be allocated on my side of the state. We just need to speed up what’s going on. Because the more time we take, the bigger that digital divide becomes.”
Johnson was referring to $400 million in funding for broadband internet in Republican Governor Mike Parson’s fiscal year 2023 budget. The bill’s fiscal note estimated 400,000 households in the state don’t have access to high-speed internet, and providing infrastructure to those locations could cost more than $1 billion. The estimated cost doesn’t include providing service once the infrastructure is in place.
Johnson’s bill calls for the state to provide high-speed internet to as many residents without access as quickly as possible, with preference given to those without access. The bill allows DED to provide high-speed internet access itself or contract with an entity to do so. The bill requires DED to evaluate the feasibility of providing residents with smartphones and, if necessary, a data plan and providing wireless hotspots from vehicles parked in underserved areas.
“The governor stated he wants to make sure that we know where we’re going with that money,” Johnson said. “I’m here for that purpose, too, but want to let this committee know this is considered an emergency to us. We’re falling farther and farther behind. We have great programs in place that just need state support.”
Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, said $250 million is earmarked for broadband buildout. He also said DED is working to meet many broadband needs.
“We’re expanding the definition of underserved—the technical definition of upload and download speeds—to more of a social definition,” Richey said. “Do you see any value in prioritizing buildout first and then the adoption rate, which is really what your bill is focused on?”
Johnson stated assistance is needed to continue programs in the Kansas City area helping people with online learning, telemedicine and working from home.
“We’ve got a lot of money, but it’s still limited and, quite frankly, doesn’t go too far,” Richey said. “It’s not enough to do everything we need to do, so everyone is fighting for those dollars. It’s important to me to know what you’re thinking because I’m hearing other people saying we need to prioritize buildout because you can’t help people utilize something that doesn’t exist yet.”
No actions were taken on the bill.