Access to affordable, reliable and widespread broadband internet service in Joplin is a big need, concludes a study sought by city officials.
A broadband analysis report developed by CCG Consulting of Ashville, North Carolina, and Finley Engineering of Lamar points to gaps in service that the consultants and city staff say must be resolved to keep Joplin competitive.
“Connectivity is one of the most important and transformative things we can do and work on right now,” said Troy Bolander, director of planning, development and neighborhood services, during a meeting Nov. 8 in which the report was detailed for the City Council. His department sought the study as part of the city’s exploration of Smart Cities.
“If you look at the history of the country, we succeeded when we were connected,” Bolander said. “During the founding of this country, if you weren’t located near a trail or a trade route, you probably didn’t survive. If you didn’t live near a waterway, you probably didn’t survive. Not along the railroad, you probably didn’t survive.”
In modern times, he said, “if a community is not near the interstate system, you may not have survived or weren’t as viable. This is the same thing today with broadband and connectivity. That’s how you connect people today and ideas. I think it’s that important. We need to make sure all our citizens are connected.”
He said city officials did a good job when they decided to adopt internet access and connectivity as one of the goals for Smart Cities. That was done before the COVID-19 pandemic but the pandemic showed the weaknesses in local internet service as people connected to health care online, worked from home, and students turned in their work and took classes online.
Patty Heagel, assistant director of planning, development and neighborhood services, said the city joined Smart Cities and U.S. Ignite to help identify where and how Joplin could advance its technology. A smart city is a technologically modern urban area that uses different types of electronic methods and sensors to collect specific data. U.S. Ignite Inc. says it focuses on “accelerating the smart community movement by guiding communities into the connected future, creating a path for private sector growth, and advancing technology research that’s at the heart of smart city development.”
Heagel said that in addition to identifying gaps in internet service, the study showed that people may not know how to use their cellphones to connect to online services such as telemedicine or how to connect to those services with a computer. Others do not have computers or internet connections.
Doug Dawson, president of CCG, said a gap report has several purposes. It informs city officials and residents about broadband and can be used to provide information to internet service providers that might be interested doing business here.
There are a number of internet service providers in Joplin now, he said.
One is AT&T, which he said stopped offering direct internet lines to new customers last year nationwide, which may signal that it eventually will pull out of the market. If that happens, cable companies would likely become the predominant providers.
Sparklight is the cable company for most of the city, although some residents use Mediacom. There also are a couple of small, fixed wireless providers and some satellite providers. A lot of residents use their cellphones for access to the internet instead of having internet connections.
Dawson said the study identified several big gaps in internet service here.
“Probably the biggest gap is that almost 71% of the folks in town have an internet broadband connection. That’s way below the national average, which is 87%. You don’t have nearly enough people connected if you want to be a Smart City in the future.”
Those surveyed cited several reasons for not having an internet connection.
There is what Dawson called an “affordability gap.” That comes from the 13% of surveyed residents who said they could not afford the current internet products that would connect to their homes.
“We did find that the broadband in Joplin is expensive, so there’s a good reason why they couldn’t afford it,” Dawson said.
Wanting 2nd option
Another 10% of reported they are using their cellphones rather than having a household internet connection. Some do not want to buy a cellphone and also pay for a broadband connection.
But cellphone data services do not provide the upload speed needed to connect reliably to schools and medical offices, to work from home or participate in virtual meetings, according to the consultant.
“There is also what I would call a competition gap,” Dawson said. Many of those surveyed, especially businesses, said they wanted more competition for broadband. “They all feel like they only have one provider, and they are really hungry for a second option,” he said.
The cost for broadband service here is $82 to $86 per month, higher than much of the rest of the country where prices are about $70 a month. Nearly everyone in the survey — 98% — want lower prices, saying broadband is too expensive in Joplin.
Reliability is another problem for Joplin broadband users. Those who have fiber service were satisfied, but those without it have complaints that upload speeds are a problem and that there are frequent outages, even for a few minutes a day, the survey reported.
Andy Hines, of Finley Engineering, said a citywide wireless network would not work in Joplin because of interference from trees and other obstacles. That’s why the consultants are recommending a fiber network such as that provided by cable services.
The cost estimate for a fiber network throughout the city is $60 million to $72 million. It would cost $52 million to do part of the city. The consultants can take those figures to providers to show them that is the estimated cost. It breaks down to about $3,000 per home.
But they have to be able to show the providers that they could make money providing the service. It would take 42% to 45% of the city’s customers for a provider to break even. “In the survey, we had way more than 42% people say they were interested in a fiber network,” Hines said.
In order to attract a new provider, the city may have to pay part of the costs of building a fiber system.
That’s where the federal and state governments interest in providing more infrastructure, which includes internet access, may help.
Paying the price
Dawson said there are many grants available now and there could be more funding in the future from federal and state sources. Though much of it is aimed at extending service to rural areas, Joplin may be able to get assistance with some new grant availability that is coming.
Also, there is grant money available for schools, libraries and health care to enhance connectivity. “Let’s get all those folks to the table, and that’s where you are going to get the big bang for the buck,” Dawson said.
To be prepared for the future, Joplin has to find ways to increase its 71% connectivity rate and to use federal dollars for connectivity and to provide computers so people can connect.
“Right now, we are sitting at a perfect place where you can get money to help” to build an updated network, Dawson said. “It doesn’t look like an ISP is going to use all their money to build a network, but they might be interested if there was money available to help such as a private-public partnership.”
Joplin officials could consider developing a plan to connect certain areas of the city in stages to new or expanded broadband.
The consultants also recommended that a city staff member or team be appointed to keep the movement going on a plan while a broadband committee already in place involving the consultants, city staff, council representatives, and representatives of health and other business partners identify realistic ways to approach a plan.
Dawson said there is plenty of time to get ready before any new federal grants become available.
Not sitting still
“The broadband we use in our businesses and in our homes has been growing at a rate that doubles about every three years, and it’s been doing that since 1980, so there’s no reason to think that it’s going to stop,” Dawson said.
At that rate, in a decade the existing broadband will be carrying 10 times more data than it does now, and the study data indicates that Joplin’s service is already stressed, Dawson said.
“Joplin is not sitting here ready for the future, and that’s really one of the calls of the Smart Cities plan,” Dawson said.
Mayor Ryan Stanley asked the city manager to report in the future to the council what the next steps will be and who will quarterback the project.