State ag director addresses rural broadband efforts, effect on farms

Amidst the spectacle of a ham auction Saturday, Missouri’s top agriculture official offered an update about efforts to address an issue adversely impacting residents in rural parts of the state.

Chris Chinn, director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture, spoke at the Boone County Fair Ham Breakfast, focusing on broadband access in rural communities.

“One of our greatest challenges in bringing that next generation back to the farm … is access to high-speed internet,” she said.

Chinn highlighted the adverse impact lack of broadband access is having through an anecdote of her daughter returning to her family’s home in rural Shelby County.

“Within three days, (we) were ready to send her back,” Chinn said. “She was the crabbiest child. I did not even recognize her. You know what her problem was? She forgot that inside of our house, her cell phone only worked in one room, and that was in the kitchen if you stood next to the window. She forgot how slow our internet was.”

Broadband internet has become a fixture in the lives of many Americans, especially those living in urban and suburban areas, but access continues to be a challenge in rural parts of the country.

According to the 2018 Broadband Deployment Report published by the Federal Communications Commission, more than 90% of Americans have access to fixed terrestrial broadband at speeds exceeding 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads, but 24 million people continue to lack access to that service.

About 14 million of those people are living in rural parts of the country, with another 1.4 million living on tribal lands. Rural residents in Missouri are facing the same difficulties as those living in other parts of the United States.

Chinn cited a statistic that 60% of people living in rural Missouri do not have access to high-speed internet.

The problem is partially driven by business models. In some rural areas, there are simply not enough customers to make it economically feasible for internet service providers to operate. It is an industry with significant startup costs. Without enough users, companies will not generate the revenue to justify the expense associated with providing the service.

To address that, Chinn said she has been speaking with officials and constituents throughout the state about the Office of Broadband that’s under the purview of the Department of Economic Development. The state’s 2020 budget includes $5 million in appropriations for the new Rural Broadband Development Fund.

Its importance is clear to Chinn. Much of the agriculture sector has transitioned to a virtual marketplace. She referenced auctions for farmers to purchase livestock, but also access to educational resources with online classes as well as health care services such as telemedicine.

For her, the push for rural broadband is an attempt to make rural areas more attractive for succeeding generations.

“I think the internet access is going to help,” she said. “It is going to allow more people to work remotely today.”

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