The pictured sign sits in a field on Marion County Road 473. Area providers like Chariton Valley, Ralls Technologies and Mark Twain Communications have been involved in various projects to increase broadband access throughout northeast Missouri and other parts of the state. Rep. Louis Riggs explained that $250 million in federal matching funds are available to fuel more projects, and legislation and a Department of Economic Development gap analysis are among tools to determine the rural, suburban and urban areas most in need of broadband internet expansion.
HANNIBAL — Efforts to expand broadband internet access and provide underserved area with the service are moving forward at an encouraging pace around Hannibal and across the Show-Me State, according to Rep. Louis Riggs (R-5).
The Chair of the Special Committee on Broadband and Infrastructure explained how several components have lead to bringing broadband internet access to rural, urban and suburban areas most in need of the service. The process prioritizes regions of the state most in need, and efforts to secure $250 million in matching federal funds — leading to $500 million in accessible money for broadband efforts, are fueling efforts to help Missouri “bridge the digital divide”.
Riggs said the core funding has led to more than 100 draft applications received by the Broadband office. He noted internet providers from throughout Missouri have expressed “incredible interest” to move forward with projects to expand broadband access.
“We are very much encouraged by the immediate response, very much encouraged by the quality of the applications — folks have primarily done this a long time,” he said.
Riggs emphasized the federal matching funds have become available for Missouri, pointing out that how the state process is more streamlined than federal processes for moving broadband projects ahead.
For example, a challenge process ensures build projects do not overlap. The timeline is moving fast. Each of the providers Riggs has talked with are planning an 18-month window for completion, compared to two-to-five years for some federal projects.
Internet providers like Ralls Technologies, Mark Twain Communications and Chariton Valley are well-equipped with materials like fiber and workforce resources, Riggs said. He described them as neighbors with a common goal of improving broadband access.
Representatives from Chariton Valley reported they have installed high-speed “future-proof” fiber networks in 10 counties in north central Missouri, including the Hannibal and Palmyra areas. Lawmakers at the federal, state and county levels of government have joined citizens in emphasizing the importance of expanding broadband access.
Federal and state funds are essential for fueling the build-outs — Chariton Valley reports pegged the cost of buried fiber at about $30,000 per mile.
Marion County Commissioners enabled broadband expansion throughout rural Palmyra with the allocation of $2.25 million in American Rescue Plan (ARPA) funds, an amount Chariton Valley matched. The provider has also been working closely with the Hannibal Business District and moving forward with projects north of U.S. 36.
Several Hannibal subdivisions have benefitted from the completion of Chariton Valley’s broadband projects, including El Rancho, Woodland Acres and Oak Ridge Pond. Neighborhoods with build-outs in the works include Clear Creek, the Warren Barrett Drive area, Chloe Place, River Bluff and Quail Ridge.
Chariton Valley representatives stressed their goal is to bring high-speed fiber internet access to every farmer, student, family and business in the region. To many residents, broadband access viewed as a utility which is as vital as electricity and running water.
“Chariton Valley has invested $46 million in fiber broadband in north central Missouri since 2017,” said Kirby Underberg, Chariton Valley President/CEO. “Chariton Valley feels well positioned to expand our existing fiber network to provide fiber connectivity to additional critical need areas. Chariton Valley has a formidable track record of growing and expanding our current network and public interest obligations. With an existing network and ongoing deployments, we are ready to bring high-speed fiber broadband to many more unserved and underserved areas in need of high-speed internet in rural Missouri.”
Riggs explained state lawmakers established a statute ensuring funding must be used for projects within three years or returned to the state. Additionally, ARPA funding will be used well ahead of the 2026 deadline.
Riggs said challenges remain for certain parts of the state, citing areas with lower population density and geographic and topographic issues. A recent Department of Economic Development gap analysis has generated a map to determine regions with the most need for broadband. The resource will have a base focus on 911, and the resulting Geographic Information System data will boost accuracy for the Broadband office to determine needs in real-time and help eliminate the potential for overlapping projects.
A new approach is also providing solutions with an approach known as “vertical real estate”. This measure is part of Senate Bill 820, and allows for antennas or towers to be placed anywhere that can be deemed a political subdivision of the state. Potential locations include vacant lots, water towers and unused buildings or property owned by a school district.
After contract details are set up, the resulting public-private partnerships would allow for more wireless broadband coverage and a boost for cellular phone signal in rural, suburban and urban parts of the state where fiber may not be feasible.
“We’re trying to basically take every resource at our disposal and get it out there,” Riggs said. “That is something we haven’t seen a whole of lot of movement with yet, but I anticipate we will very soon.”
There are areas and communities all over the state with deficiencies in broadband access, Riggs said. For instance, 25 percent of Florissant does not have internet access.
“There are glaring omissions all over the state,” he said, noting the problem is not confined to rural areas as it affects regions where the infrastructure already exists. “It’s an everybody issue — it’s not us, them — it’s all of us… It’s the entire state that has this problem, and this is designed to bridge that gap between where we are and where we need to be.”
The efforts to secure the funding, set up legislation and guidelines and work with providers has been going on for several years. Riggs made expanding broadband access a top priority when he was campaigning for office. With funding in place and project plans moving ahead throughout the state, Riggs said broadband improvements will forge ahead.
“Basically, it’s time to get this thing done,” he said. “A year ago, if you’d have asked me where we were at, I would have said guardedly optimistic. Now, it’s not guardedly optimistic, it is something that people are going to be impressed in ways we didn’t dream within the next calendar year.”