Editor's note: The Democrat will address the work area schools are undertaking to address the lack of broadband service in their districts in Wednesday’s edition.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect Pettis County, many area residents are choosing to work from home. Many parents have decided to have their children take online classes. In some cases, the decision of virtual learning is a necessity as school districts are finding the need to quarantine classes when high-risk exposures of the virus are reported.
The problem of access to broadband still exists in Pettis County and Missouri, making these choices more complicated. According to the latest Federal Communications Commission data, nearly 600,000 rural Missourians lack access to high-speed internet.
Last week, the Pettis County Commission took steps to help resolve the problem for area residents.
The county does not have exact numbers for those who do not have internet service, according to Pettis County Presiding Commissioner David Dick.
“Progress (on availability) is somewhat limited due to the ability to get the regulations out of the way to help facilitate expansion by those already in the marketplace that are limited by federal regulations being in place,” Dick said via email. “There are certain areas where there is little to no service in varying areas of the County.
“The biggest thing limiting the service is how the service was tied to census blocks and then the census blocks were bid on to award access via the federal government,” Dick added. “To get access, there needs to be a clear path and one company has been awarded the bid on census blocks that limit the ability to gain access to other areas or to connect areas, thus limiting providers the ability to generally connect or to be economically viable in doing so.”
The company Dick is referencing is Wisper ISP Inc. In 2019, it was awarded a $4.9 million contract to provide service to 2,191 locations in Pettis County, one of approximately 60 counties expected to receive broadband service. The company has been given up to 10 years to complete the project.
In addition to Missouri’s projects, Wisper has been granted contracts in Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas and Oklahoma. In total, the Federal Communications Commission awarded $220.3 million to Wisper ISP through the Rural Broadband Auction (The Connect America Fund Phase II).
In a letter sent to Missouri’s congressional delegation last week, Dick, Western Commissioner Jim Marcum and Eastern Commissioner Israel Baeza expressed the need to find alternative solutions for Pettis County residents’ lack of broadband access.
“It is our understanding that Wisper does not identify Pettis County to be a location of initial priority due to the lower population compared to other larger focus areas,” the commissioners wrote. “For quite some time, the importance of access to broadband within rural Missouri has continued to increase. With schools being forced to overnight move learning online and employers shifting employees to remote working arrangements, the COVID-19 Pandemic has further compounded the need for access to broadband in Pettis County.”
As a former school board member in La Monte and a small business owner with ties to agriculture, Marcum has firsthand knowledge of the problems.
“… It is vital that the rural schools have access necessary for whatever their classroom needs may be,” Marcum said via email. “Also with COVID, we have seen the inability to do distance learning as may be necessary from time to time. There are many aspects that we don’t think of immediately.
“There is a definite need for the ability to have internet access for the agricultural needs,” Marcum continued. “It is vital in our equipment maintenance repair and management as well as the ability to manage crop and livestock needs that require various tools for better management.”
Baeza noted his belief as many as 70% of county residents have some form of internet access.
“Broadband is definitely a big infrastructure issue that needs to be addressed in rural Missouri,” Baeza commented via email. “We are asking for assistance to make sure that we can raise that standard. Broadband is an essential part of education, medicine and agriculture in the 21st century.”
Commissioners are hoping all residents are provided with access without having to wait 10 years.
“We cannot sit by any longer to wait for broadband access as this is a critical infrastructure component for our students, residents and employers,” the commissioners’ letter stated. “The award to Wisper actually blocks us from working on any forward movement to expand broadband access into our under or unserved areas in Pettis County. We urge you to consider working with is to explore how Pettis County can work toward this mutual benefit. Communities who are not connected will continue to decline and we certainly do not want to be in that situation.”