Missouri’s broadband director eager to improve connectivity with $500M from feds

(The Center Square) – As a few dozen people in a St. Louis County Library conference room and dozens more online viewed a presentation on Missouri’s broadband plan, the screen abruptly went blank.

“If we don’t look like we’re panicking, it’s because in the broadband office these things happen quite often,” announced BJ Tanksley, the director of broadband development in the Missouri Department of Economic Development.

Seconds later, information reappeared on the screen and the 23rd of 25 meetings throughout the state continued. Tanksley and his team listened to how Missouri should best use approximately $500 million to improve the state’s broadband internet connectivity.

“It’s not going to be easy and it’s going to take time,” Tanksley said in an interview with The Center Square. “I’m always fearful of overpromising. But what we see that’s exciting is solving a huge problem for about 400,000 locations throughout the state. Between what we’re doing with [American Rescue Plan Act] and the promises of [Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program], part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, we have a chance to make a real difference.”

Tanksley, a former legislative director for the Missouri Farm Bureau, became the first director of the state’s new office of broadband development last January. Earlier that month, Missouri Republican Gov. Mike Parson revealed approximately $340 million for broadband in his proposed budget. The legislature approved $285 million.

In May, Tanksley’s office released a study showing approximately 500,000 Missourians lack broadband service at download speeds of 100 megabits per second and upload at 20 Mbps, a new minimum standard for underserved locations. It estimated a cost of almost $2 billion to provide the service through wireless or wired technologies.

During appearances throughout the state, Parson compared building capacity for broadband internet to providing infrastructure for electricity in the early 1900s.

“There were times 100 years ago when it was said people don’t need electricity and, unfortunately, we hear that from time to time on the broadband front,” Tanksley said. “Hopefully, with the funding available we can bridge that gap and it will be like electricity.”

Tanksley said balancing the interests of consumers and internet service providers will be an important task for his team.

One attendee at Wednesday’s meeting represented a cable company and urged the state to reimburse the cost of new and existing utility poles. Another attendee was a resident from Jefferson County without broadband access. She said she wrote multiple government officials, including her congressman and President Biden, to make them aware she couldn’t work from home or view job-training videos due to cost-prohibitive fees for satellite access.

Tanksley also is aware of – and prepared for – criticism of big government spending programs and mandates. The federal Digital Equity Act will provide $2.75 billion throughout the nation to promote digital equity and inclusion to help those who can’t afford high-speed internet or who don’t know how to use it.

“When people talk about the government, I get it,” Tanksley said. “This is a lot of government. But the truth is that without some support, we will never be able to close the divide. We have to be smart about how we spend. Even though there’s a lot available, the problem is bigger than what we have funds for.”

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